Art | Finders Keepers

Marine art

From the power of the ocean to billowing ships’ sails, paintings of the sea have potency and enduring appeal. Simon Brooke meets a collector and his dealer.

September 11 2009
Simon Brooke

It’s one thing for a friendship to grow out of the relationship between a collector and the dealer he or she buys through; it’s rarer for an art collection to grow out of a friendship. But through their common interest in sailing, Ian Roman, formerly a senior bond salesman at Citigroup, and James Harvey, a dealer in British art from the 17th century to the present day, established a shared love of marine art. This passion is so engrossing on Roman’s part that not only has he amassed a sizeable collection of sea paintings but, having taken redundancy last year, he has forged a second career as a marine photographer. Now, Roman’s dynamic and action-packed shots of yachts and sailors battling waves and wind take him to regattas and events around the world, from Valencia to New Zealand. As Harvey points out, “People often collect art that features something close to their hearts.”

“We first met in Itchenor, near Chichester, about 10 years ago, where we’d both regularly go sailing,” explains Roman. “I’ve been a keen sailor since I was a small lad, as has James.” But it was while both of them were working in New York that their friendship was forged – and Roman’s career as a collector was launched. Harvey had invited Roman to a party at his gallery and on display was a picture called Study for Life!. Painted by one of the greatest marine painters of the 19th century, Charles Napier Hemy, whose works can fetch up to six figures, it shows three men in a small craft that is being buffeted by truly terrifying waves.

“As a child I had a friend whose family had an etching of Life! on their dining room wall and I’d always loved it, so when I walked into James’s gallery I was amazed to see it hanging there,” says Roman. Harvey was equally surprised to get a call from his friend the next day. “Ian said: ‘Great party… You know, I really do like that picture,’ and suddenly I had to change from talking to a mate to being a businessman. It was the first time that the boundaries of friendship and business had crossed.”

“I’d never bought a work of art before,” says Roman. “You do wonder what you’re doing. It wasn’t off-the-scale expensive, but it’s more than a century old and it is an amazing work of art.”

Napier Hemy, who talked of “the sea entering my soul”, grew up in the north-east of England, and painted the sea and boats along that rugged coastline as well as around Cornwall. “The thing he does so well, especially on this picture, is to capture the depth and power of the sea. As a yachtsman you’re always very critical about the sea in paintings and the rigging – how the sails are set, for instance – but Hemy gets it just right,” says Harvey. “He had to put the boat in a dry dock so that he could sit next to it and paint every detail.”

“Hemy’s family visited Australia, and there’s a theory that it was during the long voyage there and back that his painting of the sea and ships started,” adds Roman. “By the time he got back to England he had such a bank of imagery and such an affiliation with the sea that he could really start work in earnest.”

It’s a mark of the enduring appeal of marine art that a Sotheby’s sale in London in December 2008, in the throes of the recession, achieved some very healthy prices. “An oil painting of the Cutty Sark by the mid-20th-century painter Montague Dawson with an estimate of £70,000 to £100,000 went for £187,250,” says Michael Grist, deputy director of sporting and marine art at Sotheby’s. “You don’t have to be a marine expert to appreciate painters such as Dawson,” he adds.

Marine art generally divides into two categories, appealing to different buyers. “Works by people such as Thomas Luny and Robert Dodd are very meticulous. It’s said that Turner had his painting of HMS Victory rejected by the Admiralty because it didn’t have enough gun ports on the upper deck,” says Grist. “Whereas in the other category, works by the 19th-century Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky are much more romantic.”

Despite producing more than 6,000 paintings, Aivazovsky remains one of the most sought-after marine artists: two of his works hung in the White House during John F Kennedy’s presidency, and they regularly command millions of dollars at auction. Indeed, at Sotheby’s sale of Russian art in New York in April this year, his Columbus Sailing from Palos aroused great interest and achieved $1,594,500, exceeding its high estimate by $94,500.

Works by Napier Hemy, on the other hand, are relatively rare these days, so Harvey is constantly on the lookout for other examples for Roman. But another great find for the two friends has been the work of a modern painter of sailing craft, John Steven Dews, whose work sells for £40,000 to £80,000 and is in great demand at the moment. Roman particularly appreciates the detail of the rigging and sails, the power of the sea and the strong light in Dews’ paintings. Again, the similarities between the subjects that Dews captures with oils and Roman records on film are remarkable – as he points out in Dews’ The Fife Regatta on the Clyde, which shows a mass of straining sails above a powerful, richly detailed sea.

“Dews is an exceptional artist in the classical style,” says Harvey. “You wouldn’t know whether his work was painted in 1920 or 2009.” This timeless focus on the romance and detail of sailing boats is something that, as Harvey suspected, appeals to Roman as well. He is also looking for works by John Cleveley and Thomas Whitcombe, both active in the 18th century, and currently much sought after, to continue building his collection. One of his most important discoveries is a 1779 oil painting by another great, Thomas Luny, of a privateer cutter (an auxiliary to a war fleet). This was the painter’s first work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, when he was still building his reputation as a great marine painter.

Harvey and Roman are planning to curate an exhibition of marine paintings from Harvey’s gallery alongside examples of Roman’s photography, which they would tour to Itchenor and other sailing resorts. As Harvey observes: “It would be great to get outside the traditional gallery setting and show these works to people who share our love of sailing.”

See also

Collecting, Paintings