‘Genius consists in a man finding out what he is capable of and working at that for all he is worth’, Charles Napier Hemy said, assessing his own work. For Hemy, his calling was the sea, first experienced as a young boy sailing from England to Australia. ‘Still I remember the sea’, he recalled in his later years, ‘and my first real glimpse of it from the topgallant bulwark of an emigrant ship – long lines of white foam like manes behind the white horses, a heavy sky, and our breaking bow-wave roaring off in the great field of green and white. I have never forgotten it, and never shall’.1Charles Napier Hemy, quoted in J. P. Collins, ‘A painter of the sea. The life’s work of Mr. Napier Hemy, A. R. A.’, Pall Mall Magazine, vol. 37, no. 158, Jun. 1906, p. 667.
Charles Napier Hemy was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in north-east England in 1841, the eldest of ten sons of Henry and Margaret Hemy (the couple also had three daughters). A music teacher, Henry Hemy and his wife converted to Catholicism when Charles was a child, following Henry’s employment as an organist in a Roman Catholic church.2Andrew Greg, Charles Napier Hemy R.A. 1841–1917, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1984, p. 11. Charles would also embrace Catholicism throughout his life. In 1850 the Hemys, faced with financial difficulties, immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, for two years, where ten-year-old Charles helped his father work the goldfields near Ballarat. Hemy recalled how
We sailed from Liverpool in a clipper called the Madawaska, a 600 ton ship, very crack and very fast … My first appearance on deck was when we were down the channel. The wind was north but the sky grey and a long grey swell running. It was my first sight of the open sea from the deck of a ship. I can remember, it entered my soul, it was imprinted on my mind, and I never forgot it.3Peter D. McGann (ed.), Days of My Youth: Charles Napier Hemy RA, ARA, RWS, Viglione Press, Black Rock, Victoria, 2009, p. 16.
During the return voyage to England in 1852, Hemy acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the complex rig and parts of a sailing ship, and also experienced wild sea weather during hurricanes with gale force winds. In Newcastle in 1854, at age thirteen, he enrolled in the Government School of Design, under the mastership of the Scottish painter William Bell Scott, who was an ardent supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites and closely connected to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hemy’s uncle, the artist Isaac Henzell, now inspired him to become a painter. Between 1855 and 1862, however, Hemy’s art studies were interrupted by his desire to become a Catholic priest. In 1862, realising that he did not have a serious vocation for the priesthood, Hemy began painting seascapes directly from nature in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites. He first showed paintings in London at the Society of British Artists in 1863, and in 1864 his first masterpiece, Among the shingle at Clovelly, 1864 (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne), was exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Hemy devoted himself to creating ever more complex seascapes, painted for the most part directly from nature, gradually developing a unique painting language of his own. In 1880, The Art Journal praised his work Saved, 1880 (Glasgow Museums, United Kingdom), as ‘the realisation of a mind, and the execution of a hand, distinct from any other’.4Charles Napier Hemy, The Art Journal, Aug. 1881, p. 227. In 1881 Hemy married Amy Freeman, a Catholic woman from Falmouth, Cornwall, with whom he was to have ten children. For the next three decades, Hemy’s work was devoted primarily to marine subjects painted around Falmouth and the south Cornish coast. These were both popular and commercially successful, bringing the artist a steady stream of commissions, as well as royalties from their reproduction as engravings and lithographs. At the height of his career Hemy’s paintings fetched more than £1,000 each and he also sold the dozens of preparatory canvases that lay behind their production.5Margaret Powell, ‘Charles Napier Hemy: A man true to himself’, in Margaret Powell, Master of the Sea: Charles Napier Hemy RA, RWS, Alison Hodge, Newmill, Cornwall, 2004, p. 18. With his new wealth, he commissioned the building of a large house and studio, Churchfield, on a hill overlooking Falmouth Harbour.
Hemy always preferred to start his compositions on the open sea, and his original floating studio was an old fishing seine boat that he christened the Vandervelde (named after the Elder and Younger Willem van de Velde, seventeenth-century Dutch marine painters). She was blown from her moorings during a storm, however, and wrecked off St Mawes, opposite Falmouth. Hemy had the boat salvaged and brought it into his garden at Churchfield, where it was refitted into a land-moored studio. He then designed and built the Vandermeer (named after the legendary Delft painter Johannes van der Meer, ‘from the sea’, now known as simply ‘Vermeer’), which the Windsor Magazine described as
a well-built and sumptuously furnished yacht. It measures fifty-seven feet overall, and has a spacious teak-built cabin-studio amidships, lighted with large windows, from which the owner successfully studies his subject, be it sea, sky, ships, atmosphere, light, shade, or effects generally.6Wilfred Klickmann, ‘A sea-painter at Work: Mr. C. Napier Hemy, A. R. A. and his Pictures’, The Windsor Magazine, vol. 10, Jun–Nov. 1899, p. 289.
Hemy employed a crew of two on the Vandermeer, enabling him to venture further into the Channel, in search of subject matter.7Greg, p. 47. He revealed some of his method to the journalist J. P. Collins in 1906:
I gathered in the course of our talk that Mr. Hemy’s practice is to buy a fresh boat every season – not a brand-new product of the builder’s yard, but a weather-worn affair that is not too good for ‘human nature’s daily food’. Putting to sea in the Vander-Meer, with the boat and a couple of men in her wake, he drops anchor in the open, and there he has the new prize driven past, against the wind and back again, as many as fifty times a day. When he returns to shore, he carries back a sheaf of studies of every form of breaking wave, and there you get the secret of that free translucent play of emerald water that caresses and irradiates so much of Mr. Hemy’s work, to the despair, the envy, the delight of other men.8Collins, p. 663.
The masterpiece of Hemy’s mature years was Pilchards, 1897 (Tate, London), an enormous study of the harvesting of a myriad of these silverfish that won him acclaim at the 1897 Royal Academy exhibition, and was purchased for £1,200 by the Chantrey Bequest for the Tate. In the same year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (he was made a full member in 1910). Hemy continued to exhibit paintings annually at the Royal Academy until his death in 1917.
A composition of incredible daring, Charles Napier Hemy’s The bell buoy, 1900, was shown in the Nineteenth Summer Exhibition at London’s New Gallery in 1906 when The Times praised it as ‘a fine study of waves, with none of the monotony to which sea-pieces are liable’.9‘The new Gallery’, The Times, 23 Apr. 1906, p. 4. Ironically, the same exhibition included a portrait of Hemy by John Singer Sargent, which art writer Laurence Housman decried as ‘the dullest piece of smartness imaginable’.10Laurence Housman, ‘The new Gallery’, The Manchester Guardian, 21 Apr. 1906, p. 8; Richard Ormond & Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent. The Later Portraits. Complete Paintings, Volume III, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003, no. 502, p. 160.
The bell buoy was acquired for the NGV by the Gallery’s first London-based Felton Bequest Adviser, the artist George Clausen. An early member of the New English Art Club, and an Associate of the Royal Academy since 1895, Clausen’s 1906 purchases for the NGV reflected his consideration of what was then best in contemporary British art. In addition to Hemy’s marine composition, Clausen selected paintings by William Rothenstein, Annie Swynnerton, Charles Shannon, Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Mackie, Alphonse Legros and John Buxton Knight.11Leonard B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968. A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 63–5, 427 note 14.
Hemy’s love of the sea dated back to his childhood experiences with his family, emigrating from England to Melbourne in 1850, a connection that made The bell buoy a perfect choice for the NGV (his childhood years in Australia were well known to contemporary audiences). As he had been in the final years of Victorian England, Hemy was the most renowned painter of maritime subjects in the Edwardian era.
As writer Arthur Fish, who conducted a long interview with Hemy in 1900, noted:
Nothing appears on his canvases that he has not actually seen; no effects of the ever-changing sea are depicted that have not been closely studied from nature … one is struck by the vividness and strength of these subtle colour snapshots of sea and atmosphere. The great waves of mid-channel, the ‘league-long rollers thundering on the reef,’ the placid waters of a land-locked harbor, or the flying scud of the storm-driven sea, are all faithfully rendered by hi skillful brush.12Arthur Fish, ‘The work of C. Napier Hemy, A. R. A.’, The Magazine of Art, 1900, pp. 4, 7.
Radical in its compositional emptiness, and a bravura demonstration of open, dragged brushwork, The bell buoy is a highly immersive picture, which chills the viewer and makes one feel almost flecked with cold saltwater spray from this scene of turbulent waters churning beneath a gloomy, cloud-locked sky. The thrilling accuracy of Hemy’s depiction is indebted to his preference for painting not only before, but directly within the elements using a floating studio. Fish recorded how:
His present boat, the Vandermeer, is a handsome yacht-like vessel in which he has room enough to work on a six-foot canvas, and which is safe enough to take him anywhere along the Channel. From her windows he can study the sea under its varied conditions and transfer his impressions direct to canvas, while they are still under his eyes or still fresh in his mind.13Fish, p. 6.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Charles Napier Hemy, quoted in J. P. Collins, ‘A painter of the sea. The life’s work of Mr. Napier Hemy, A. R. A.’, Pall Mall Magazine, vol. 37, no. 158, Jun. 1906, p. 667.
Andrew Greg, Charles Napier Hemy R.A. 1841–1917, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1984, p. 11.
Peter D. McGann (ed.), Days of My Youth: Charles Napier Hemy RA, ARA, RWS, Viglione Press, Black Rock, Victoria, 2009, p. 16.
Charles Napier Hemy, The Art Journal, Aug. 1881, p. 227.
Margaret Powell, ‘Charles Napier Hemy: A man true to himself’, in Margaret Powell, Master of the Sea: Charles Napier Hemy RA, RWS, Alison Hodge, Newmill, Cornwall, 2004, p. 18.
Wilfred Klickmann, ‘A sea-painter at Work: Mr. C. Napier Hemy, A. R. A. and his Pictures’, The Windsor Magazine, vol. 10, Jun–Nov. 1899, p. 289.
Greg, p. 47.
Collins, p. 663.
‘The new Gallery’, The Times, 23 Apr. 1906, p. 4.
Laurence Housman, ‘The new Gallery’, The Manchester Guardian, 21 Apr. 1906, p. 8; Richard Ormond & Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent. The Later Portraits. Complete Paintings, Volume III, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003, no. 502, p. 160.
Leonard B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968. A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 63–5, 427 note 14.
Arthur Fish, ‘The work of C. Napier Hemy, A. R. A.’, The Magazine of Art, 1900, pp. 4, 7.
Fish, p. 6.