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Boating book reviews:


An Eye for the Coast

The Maritime and Monhegan Island Photographs of Eric Hudson

An Eye for the CoastIn 1898 the American artist Eric Hudson built himself a cottage on the rugged island of Monhegan off the coast of New England and began photographing every aspect of life connected with the sea that he found there.

For Hudson, photography recorded the facts of coastal life - facts that could later be transmuted into his paintings, a kind of quick sketch to be worked-up later.

However, Hudson was an artist and he looked at the world with the eye of an artist, so that many of his photographs take on an aesthetic quality that raises them above mere records of facts. In his pictures of the sailing vessels that worked the coast he consistently gets himself into a position that best shows the beauty of the shape of the vessel, whilst at the same time the image will be a record of the subject as a working boat. This fine paperback is a superb record of Hudson’s work as a photographer. As a portrait of a very specific time and place it ranks alongside the work of British photographers like Emerson and Sutcliffe.

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The Narrative of William Spavens

The Narrative of William Spavens

This is the authentic voice of the lower deck speaking vividly and often movingly across the 200 and more years that separate our world from his. Such accounts are rare things and should be treasured. Spavens writes about the conditions of life of the common seaman - conditions that he seems to accept with a kind of quiet dignity.

He gives an account of Hawke’s victory at Quiberon Bay in 1759. He was pressed himself and later served in a press-gang. He writes with amazing detatchment about the punishment inflicted by the Navy on its men. He deserted both from a man-of-war and an East Indiaman. Such is the bald outline of the kind of things Spavens writes about. But what such an outline fails to get across, is the author’s obvious intelligence and his ability to stand back and think about what he has recorded.

Above all, Spavens comes across as being at least as intelligent as the men who commanded him. Today he would have made it, hopefully, to officer rank; in the 18th century his class and background made such a thing almost impossible.

The Naval Chronicle

Chatham Publishing

From 1799 to 1819, over 1,000 pages of naval news and views were published every year in The Naval Chronicle, and as such it represents the most reliable record of the naval dimension of the war with France. This volume, the second of the five to be published, includes coverage of the seige of Acre in 1799, the invasion of the Netherlands, the Baltic Crisis and the Battle of Copenhagen.

It is difficult not to go over the top with praise for Chatham’s decision to publish this series. Nobody interested in the subject could fail to be engrossed by these contemporary accounts of the exploits of the Royal Navy in the war with France.

Take this account of the Battle of Copenhagen, from a letter written on board the Ganges: "We were the luckiest line of battle ship in the action in our loss of men, but are most shockingly cut up in masts and rigging. Lord Nelson never knew, he says, such a ship in his life; her sides in a constant blaze with firing, and the men at the same time always a cheering."

You won’t get closer to the heart of things. The period "feel" is superb; the naval world of the 18th century was never more alive than this.

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Reminiscences of a Naval Officer

By Captain A Crawford RN

Reminiscences of a Naval Officer Reminiscences of a Naval Officer is the fourth book in the excellent Sailor’s Tales series. Having had The Narrative of William Spavens, a rare authentic voice from the lower deck; now it’s the turn of the quarterdeck to tell it like it was, and you could not ask for a better, more intimate account. There is plenty of action here - attacks on enemy ships in port using new-fangled weapons like Congreve rockets and Fulton’s "Torpedoes"; small-scale actions; blockading; siege; Admiral Duckworth’s passage of the Dardanelles in 1809 - but somehow it’s the more mundane, domestic details that stick in the memory. And the reason for this is the way Captain Crawford writes, his sense of humour, and his obvious fascination with his fellow man. In short, Crawford is a people person and the sort of chap whom you just know it would be good to have as a friend. Here he is describing a certain Lieutenant S, somewhat the worse for drink at a ball: "One of the Lieutenants certainly carried a heavy press of sail, and steered so ominously wild, that I am at a loss to conceive how he contrived to preserve his perpendicular so long"...

Then there is Archibald Murray, elder brother of the publisher; "he set little value upon wealth, except in so far as it enabled him to increase his store of books...when he joined Malta, his library could not have contained less than 4,000 well-chosen volumes..." There’s a fine portrait of the ageing Collingwood and Crawford’s mentor Sir Edward Owen, who surely deserves to be better known to history. A host of other well-observed characters populate these pages, but in the end it is Crawford whom you come to know as a friend - it is a friendship to esteem.

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Sailing Thoroughbreds

Beken of Cowes

The Beken family tradition continues with this fine collection of yacht portraits. Keith Beken is now in his 80s and still taking pictures; Kenneth, his son, is a mere lad in his late 40s - a formidable team!

There are 115 colour plates in this book and every one of them is superb. The section called "The Spirit of Tradition" will no doubt appeal to readers of this magazine the most, but no lover of sail could fail to be bowled over by the pictures of more modern yachts. As well as the images, the rear of the book has a "biography" of each boat, together with brief technical details.

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Coasting Sailorman

By Captain "Harry" Bagshaw

Coasting SailormanAs the years pass, so do the men who worked under sail; even those who traded in the final years are now into their sixties; within a little while they will all be gone and we will wish that their memories had been recorded.

The late Captain "Harry" Bagshaw was a sailorman who did set down his experiences, and they appear here augmented by the reminiscences of his younger son Albert, the whole having been compiled and edited by Richard Walsh. "Harry" began his time as third hand of the barge Gwynhelen in 1915: he was 14 years old, and his wage was 7/6d per week, food included. Within nine years Harry was to take command of the London and Rochester Barge Company’s Scone, the largest vessel in the fleet, and he remained with her until 1945, when he left the barge and the sea for ever. Such are the bald facts of 30 years as a sailorman, yet what stories of toil and struggle, light and shade, delays and disputes are left untold in such a summary! And make no mistake, it’s all here, told in a matter-of-fact style that only adds to the vividness of the events recalled. This is a great read, enhanced with many fine photographs, all brought together in a well produced volume. Chaffcutter Books, who published Coasting Sailorman, did so on behalf of the Society for Sailing Barge Research. Everyone concerned deserves the highest praise.

Captain Bligh and Mister Christian

By Richard Hough

Captain Bligh and Mister ChristianThe most written about mutiny in the history of the Royal Navy has never been better explored than in this book. First published in 1972, revised in 1979, Captain Bligh and Mister Christian now appears in paperback under the Chatham imprint. Hough’s account is scholarly, gripping and beautifully written, and above all, even handed.

And it is this fairness, especially when looking at the characters of the two main protagonists, that is so important when trying to assess the causes of the mutiny. The 19th century was unashamedly anti-Bligh, a view perpetuated in popular culture with Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Bligh as a pompous, tyrannical sadist, whereas Christian was seen as gentlemanly, cultured, handsome and charming. For Hough Bligh is a complex, fascinating man with many fine qualities: brave, conscientious, a fine seaman and navigator, but he is also somewhat dull, highly-strung, short-tempered and belligerent. Christian, on the other hand, is weak, moody, lacking in leadership and not up to the responsibilities of his rank, and, most telling perhaps, with an insatiable appetite for affection, a character that could not cope with Bligh’s public humiliation of him when he could not handle the responsibilities of being promoted to acting lieutenant and second-in-command.

Most controversial in Hough’s probing account is his suggestion that Bligh and Christian may have been lovers: "I believe," writes Hough, "that the solution of the Bounty mystery lies somewhere in this forbidden darkness". Well, such an hypothesis would go a long way to answering the mystery of the causes of the mutiny, though it has to be said that it’s all very conjectural. One thing is certain though, for anyone wishing to get to grips with this famous mutiny, this book is essential reading.

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Lt James Cook RN and his voyage in HM Bark Endeavour 1768-1771

From the brush and pen of Ted Phillipson

Lt James Cook RNNow living in Australia,Ted Phillipson was born in Yorkshire and made many a visit to "Cook Country". Then, on moving Down Under, he was able to walk on the shores of Botany Bay, knowing that once again he was treading in the footsteps of the greatest navigator the world has ever seen. Since retiring, Ted’s interest in his hero gave rise to the idea of writing and illustrating a book on the great man.

The result is this colourfully illustrated larger format paperback. Primarily designed to appeal to young readers, the book’s illustrations follow Cook’s early life and his Endeavour voyage of 1768-71, the idea being to allow Ted’s pictures to tell the story with the minimum intrusion of words. More similar publications are planned for Cook’s voyages in the Resolution, and if they maintain the standard set by this, the first in the series, a generation of young readers should end up learning at least the essentials of the life of this still too little known "seaman’s seaman".

A Sailor’s Scrapbook

Edited and Introduced by Josh Spencer

A Sailor’s Scrapbook In 1941 the four-masted barque Lawhill passed out of the ownership of Gustav Erikson, lowered the Finnish flag and hoisted the South African.

She had become a prize of war as a result of Finland entering the conflict as an ally of Germany. Her skipper, Arther Soderland, himself a Finn, together with his crew, had had orders to take Lawhill into East London and this he did after a cordial exchange of signals with HMSAS Babiana, a lightly armed converted trawler.

South Africa put the barque to work right away - Lawhill sailing to Australia just two months after her "capture". And so it was that Gordon Belton, a young South African, joined the bald-headed barque for the round trip to Australia in 1945-46. He took with him a camera, and as a result over 250 of the literally hundreds of photographs he took of life aboard Lawhill appear in this fine book. In addition, there are extracts from Gordon’s log of the voyage and a full history of the windjammer right down to her ignominious scrapping; there is also a further section on Gordon’s time abroad the Passat and the big schooner Commodore II. All in all, this is a beautifully produced work and a well-researched add-ition to the genre.

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Nelson’s Favourite

By Anthony Deane

Nelson’s Favourite This book was first published in hardback in 1996 and now makes a welcome appearance in paperback. Sub-titled HMS Agamemnon at War 1781 - 1809 and in truth, Nelson only had her for three years, Anthony Deane’s account of the life and times of this famous 64-gun ship makes a fine read.

And no wonder Nelson said of the Agamemnon that she was the "finest ship I ever sailed" and surely no vessel of the period could have had a more action-packed career: she fought at Trafalgar, the Saintes and Copenhagen, as well as in numerous small actions, and later in the West Indies she participated in the Battle of Santo Domingo before being wrecked in 1809 in Maldonado Bay off what is now Uruguay. Nor is it just these front-line events that make this book worth reading; Deane goes behind the battles and skirmishes and looks at the background to the events, setting them in the context of the politics of the time. He looks at the building, maintenance and manning of the "wooden world", the mutinies of 1797 and other topics which helped to create the world in which the Agamemnon plied her trade.

Indeed, the book could serve as a good introduction to the history of the war at sea, so in the thick of things was the Agamemnon, yet the author’s lively style never allows the "history" to sink into the lack-lustre recounting of facts of the school text-book sort. Added to which, the book is beautifully illustrated using contemporary images; there are extensive chapter notes and a good bibliography.

ABC of Boat Bits

By Samuel Leech

A Voice from the Main DeckRichard Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, knew Samuel Leech and encouraged him to write this account of the life of an ordinary seaman in the sailing navy at a time when such first-hand recollections came almost exclusively from the officer class.

Leech had been present aboard the Macedonian in the action with the United States when the British struck to the American frigate, and his account of the action was, according to Dana, "the most graphic and home-felt description" of a naval action that he had ever read. And Dana had, it seems, read memoirs which had left him distinctly unimpressed because their authors "put in things they did not notice at the time, and emotions and thoughts they did not experience at the time". Not so with Leech, he tells only the exact truth with, in Dana’s words, "good sense and honesty".

It’s all here - the press gangs, floggings, the excessive drinking and the often harsh rule of captains, commended to the reader with Leech’s words that what "cost me much pain to suffer" may "afford him pleasure to read". Amen to that!

E W Cooke 1811-1880

By John Munday

E W Cooke 1811-1880The sub-title of this book is A Man of his Time and the author could not have chosen a better one. Cooke embodied many of the characteristics which we have come to regard as "Victorian": motivated, hard-working, focused, self-assured - all traits which to modern ears seem strangely at odds with our ideas of what an artist should be. Cooke, it seems, knew where he was going almost from the word go. His background helped, of course: his father was a talented engraver and he took to it like a duck to water. By the age of 17 young Edward was producing lively watercolour studies of shipping on the Thames, and had begun work on the celebrated 50 Plates of Shipping and Craft, an amazing achievement at any age let alone as a teenager. Indeed, if readers of this magazine have yet to clap eyes on the work, they have a treat in store, for in Cooke’s meticulous etchings we have a record of the huge variety of sailing vessels, small craft and their gear that abounded in the years just before steam began to make its presence felt, a record of vessels largely built in the late 18th century and that had all but disappeared by the time photography had been perfected. At the age of 23 he was painting in oils, and his career as an artist may be truly said to have begun. It was a career that would see him elected RA and would bring honours, fulfilment and wealth. And yet...and yet...somehow Cooke’s achieve-ment as a painter, significant as it was, never quite hits the heights, at least so it appears to modern eyes.

The reason lies in Cooke’s somewhat Pre-Raphaelite approach: his paintings, so expert in their draughtsmanship, have a hard-edged quality that seems short on the painterly feel that we have come to love in this century. His work is concerned more with facts rather than feeling, something which found its ultimate expression in his often myopic paintings of rocks and the sea-shore - themselves subjects which fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites. Still, to anyone interested in sail, Cooke’s work in this field is a must, and should be prized as a wonderful record of the age of sail.

And certainly, Cooke has found himself a fine champion in John Munday, the author of his superb monograph, and, as one would expect from the Antique Collectors" Club, the production values of the book are very high indeed. There are over 500 illustrations, 175 in full colour, and Munday has included extensive extracts from the artist’s diary - a diary Cooke kept in true Victorian style for over 50 years! We look forward to other monographs on 19th century marine artists - Clarkson Stanfield is one artist that springs to mind who surely warrants the ACC treatment!

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