James Edward Buttersworth is considered by many to be one of the most accomplished painters of sailing vessels. Hailed for his ability to render maritime scenes in exacting detail, Buttersworth produced paintings that have been treasured by astute collectors and collected by museums for generations. Buttersworth executed countless marine paintings from subjects he observed in the waters off England and later off New York. Especially skilled at portraying the majesty, grace, and movement of sailing vessels, Buttersworth was in demand by patrons who experienced a strong sense of being pulled along because of the curves and flow in the wind-filled sails of his ships.
James Edward Buttersworth was born in London, England in 1817. His family comprised a number of marine artists. James received his first artistic training from his father Thomas Buttersworth Jr. who was himself a noted maritime artist. James immigrated to the United States in 1845 and settled in what was then known as West Hoboken, New Jersey and which is now known as Union City. He also maintained a studio in Brooklyn, New York beginning in 1854. Buttersworth arrived in America both fortuitously and propitiously during a period of time that would later be known as the Golden Age of Sail. Almost at once he set about executing marine paintings that portrayed packet ships, ocean steamships, clipper ships, naval frigates, harbor craft and glamorous yachts. Even to this day James Buttersworth is recognized and lauded as one of the most preeminent 19th century American ship portraitists. His style of painting is celebrated and collected for its meticulous detail, dramatic settings, and graceful renderings of the sleek new clipper ships which were setting all kinds of speed records around the globe. Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives adapted many of their lithographs from his marine paintings which depicted famous vessels and marine disasters and which were executed between 1847 and 1865. In 1851 James returned to England in time for the Hundred Pound Cup Race which was held in August of 1851. The sketches and paintings that recorded the yachting competition provided a lasting record of the event. Throughout the 1850's Buttersworth continued to develop a formidable reputation as a ship portraitist. In 1893 one year prior to his death Buttersworth chronicled the Vigilant vs. Valkyrie Cup Match in a series of paintings which completed the recording of the America's Cup Races just prior to the advent of photography.
Naval Frigate Sailing Past Dover Castle is an early work by Buttersworth, executed circa 1850-55 after leaving for America in 1849. It is well known that Buttersworth painted essentially British subjects like our example even after having departed from England. The iconic White Cliffs of Dover would remain fresh in his mind, while prints of the Roman lighthouse at Dover Castle built in the 12th century to ward off potential invaders were readily available in New York City. The frame and construction of the bow along with the Minerva figurehead further substantiate this date. Buttersworth has featured the historic Dover Castle against a luminous background for maximum effect. In order to accentuate the seeming speed and obvious grace of this ship, Buttersworth has filled the sails with wind in order to create a feeling of motion with its Union Jack burgees and unfurled blue naval flag flying in the wind. Darkened skies and churning seas have succeeded in dramatizing the scene, thus creating a sense of danger and urgency or danger barely escaped. With a painstaking attention to detail the viewer is brought up close to the scene, almost becoming a part of the drama. Buttersworth ennobled and romanticized such sailing vessels that are beautiful and refined as well as authenticately rendered and thus preserved for posterity to enjoy. Such maritime pictures are historically important works.
Kennedy Galleries, New York
Private Collection, Newtown, Connecticut