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Merchant shipping is shown in the Bristol Channel, off the mouth of the Avon, in the year of the accession of Queen Victoria. The ship on the far left is shown in port-broadside view at anchor, with a quarter-gallery window open. It flies a red pennant and Blue Peter flag to indicate that it is preparing to sail, and the boat going alongside may be putting a pilot on board. The ship shown in port-bow view in the foreground may be its consort, since she is flying the same house pennant at the main. Both vessels are probably Bristol-owned West Indiamen and typical of the period, with 'painted ports' mimicking naval style - originally as a defensive measure. Both also fly the red ensign. The foreground vessel has a white bust figurehead clearly visible - apparently male and in classical style - and has just weighed anchor. The fact that chain cable is in use, and a shackle anchor-ring, is indicative of the relatively late date for the type of ship shown and is an early representation of the use of chain cable, which only come into general use around 1840. The anchor tackle is already hooked to the ring, to bring the anchor to the cathead. A jib and the mizzen topsail have already been set and the other topsails and fore course are shaking out and filling as she bears away southward in a wind blowing roughly from the north-west, into the picture over the left shoulder of the viewer. Figures on the deck include an officer wearing a blue coat and a tarpaulin hat, standing in the bow with his back to the viewer. A sailor leans over the port side holding a line to a small boat with two men, one of whom may be pulling up its anchor. To its right is a distant pilot cutter, with others apparently among the shipping further right, beating out of the mouth of the River Avon in the wake of two more merchantmen coming down from Bristol. Among this group is a small paddle tug, probably one used to assist sailing vessels to and from Bristol against wind and tide. The village of Pill, on the south bank inside the Avon, was the base for the pilots and the sprit-rigged craft on the far right is probably also a pilot boat. The vessels anchored in the centre are Severn trows, the sloop- or ketch-rigged barges which carried cargo from Gloucester and further up the river down to Bristol, and vice-versa. The topography has been carefully delineated and a large house can be seen in the distance. Walter was born in Bristol and was a pupil of Thomas Lang. He lived and worked in the commercial port there and his familiarity with marine subjects suggests that he may for a time have gone to sea. He was considered the leading ship-portrait painter in Bristol during the 19th century. This painting is one of two very similar versions of the same subject, through differing in details, both also of practically the same size and both painted in 1837. The other is in the City of Bristol Art Gallery, which also has a smaller and later variant of the subject.
Joseph Walter was an English marine painter in oils and watercolour, working at Bristol and Portishead. He gained notice for his portrayals of Brunel's steamships Great Western and Great Britain.
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Shipping off Bristol | Joseph Walter | 1837
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