|William John Huggins (1781-1845)|
The Northern Whale Fishery, 1835
oil on canvas
28 5/8 x 52 5/8 inches
William John Huggins, a one time a sailor with the East India Company, was a firsthand witness to the scene depicted of the ship Harmony and other ice-bound Whalers on the Davis Straits between Baffin Bay, Canada and Greenland. Huggins first painted this well-known image in 1828. Entitled Northern Whale Fishery, the image was engraved by Edward Duncan in 1829 (Huggins son-in-law) and brought greater fame to both men for illuminating the rewards and perils of whaling in the icy waters on the Davis Strait whaling ground. The original 1828 work now hangs in the renowned New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts.
This second, larger and more proficient interpretation of the scene was most likely commissioned by Robert Bell in 1835 (son to Thomas Bell, owner of the Harmony). The American built bark Harmony of 292 tons sits at the center of the painting with the Margaret of London to the left and the Eliza Swan of Montrose to the right. Filled with incredible detail throughout, nearly every aspect of whaling is depicted- from the chase and capture, to processing the catch alongside, to “trying out” or boiling down the blubber on Harmony’s bow.
Two other masted ships are shown, including one foundering as the ice closes in on her hull, her crew surely trying to salvage what they can as they stand alongside. Penguins gather on an ice floe near one of the twelve depicted whale boats as it closes in on a catch. Birds circle all the ships, hoping for a morsel. Huggins sets the scene masterfully and the viewer can almost feel what it’s like to be there.
Authentic period paintings of the whaling era are extremely rare. This painting not only depicts history but is itself an important piece of history, combining fine detail, skillful brushwork, and sensitive coloration in a work that any collector would cherish.
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