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Yarmouth's seafaring past captured in oils

PUBLISHED: 09:01 02 December 2011

Storm on Yarmouth Beach, John Sell Cotman

Storm on Yarmouth Beach, John Sell Cotman

Archant

An exhibition of historic paintings at Time and Tide Museum portrays Great Yarmouth in the eras of Nelson and Dickens. IAN COLLINS enjoys some stirring scenes.

Oh I do love to be inside the seaside showcase that is the Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life. And the sights, sounds and smells of Norfolk’s largest port-resort to be savoured in this former kippering shed are now joined by the perfect fleet of historic paintings.

An exhibition entitled Sea View: Great Yarmouth Masterpieces presents a portrait of the town in the first half of the 19th century and provides a very pleasing picture.

These truly masterly works are drawn from the county’s unrivalled store of images by the Norwich School which should more accurately be called the Norfolk School since local landscapes and seascapes were its main focus.

Founded in 1803, the Norwich Society of Artists was the first and finest of the provincial art schools to flourish across Britain in the 19th century.

It took its cue from 17th century Dutch painting but its achievement was authentically East Anglian – finding romance on our doorsteps and raising watercolour from a sketching medium to the most scintillating means of de-picting a watery and quicksilver scene.

That Norwich School artists gave paradise a Norfolk setting is all the more amazing considering the dire state our county was in at the time.

East Anglia had long gone from medieval prosperity and was turning into one of the poorest parts of England. And for all the hailing of Horatio Nelson as a local hero, Norfolk was suffering hugely from the Napoleonic Wars and would ail further in an aftermath of rural recession, repression and insurrection.

And yet, looking at this artists’ impression, Great Yarmouth was a glorious place – bustling with trade and industry and already relishing its popularity as a tourist destination.

At the gateway of Norfolk’s Broads and rivers with the North Sea, Yarmouth commanded the waterways which were our motorways of old. It was jammed with all the merchant vessels which were history’s juggernauts.

The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar would secure Britain’s mastery of the seas for more than a century and Yarmouth played a starring role — with a grand, if belated, 1800 reception for the returning hero after the 1798 Battle of the Nile, and later adding the lofty memorial in his memory.

A centre placed between countryside and coastline was dominated by the ocean, its opportunities and its dangers. So the title of this show — Sea View — is spot on.

The Norwich School was essentially grouped around two masters, John Sell Cotman and John Crome, and com-prised their families, friends and pupils. No member could live by painting alone.

Cotman, the outstanding talent, and one of the most troubled, was away from his native Norfolk at the school’s outset. But, returning in 1807, he was president from 1811.

The following year he moved to Yarmouth, and lived there for more than a decade, seeking pupils and patrons among wealthy families on the quay. Best of the latter was the banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner, who became his main backer and collaborator.

Cotman was also able to study the actions of the sea and all the activities depending on it. In my view the most wonderful of all his watercolours is the resulting Storm on Yarmouth Beach, the main picture illustrating this fea-ture.

Yarmouth folk knew all about the lethal ferocity of winds and tides, and one of its adopted citizens, Captain George Manby –Cotman’s neighbour -– turned an endlessly inventive mind towards rescue from all manner of danger.

Although rejected for service in the American War of Independence for being too young and too short, he was a veteran of a perilous first marriage.

Having inherited his father-in-law’s fortune, he also received a bullet fired by his wife’s lover.

In February 1807, while Barrack-Master at Yarmouth, he was a helpless witness when a naval vessel, the Snipe, was smashed offshore in a storm. As many as 214 people drowned, including women, children and French prison-ers of war.

He was then moved to devise the Manby Mortar, later developed into the breeches buoy, which could fire ropes from shore into the rigging of stricken vessels as lifelines.

Captain Manby would also design the world’s first fire extinguisher, advocate a national fire brigade and pioneer the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

His is one of the ghosts stalking the Norwich School’s Yarmouth pictures, but for all their documentary accuracy the later scenes remind me most forcefully of a favourite work of fiction.

Charles Dickens famously visited Yarmouth in 1849 and, although staying for only two nights at the Royal Hotel, he went on to immortalise the Norfolk town in his semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield.

Looking at the working figures in Alfred Stannard’s Yarmouth Jetty, I spy a Peggotty crew.

And, just off the picture and further up the beach, a shrimp supper is surely brewing in a cosy cottage made from an upturned boat.

n Sea View: Great Yarmouth Masterpieces is at Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life in Blackfriars Road, until March 4.

n Winter opening times Mon-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat/Sun 12pm- 4pm, £4.80 (£4.10 cons), £3.50 children, under-4s free, £4 adult in family group, 01493 743930, www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

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