William Barnett Spencer – An in depth look at one of our finest pieces March 31, 2016 – Posted in: Unique Collections – Tags: antiques, art, collectibles, fine art, unique, William Barnett Spencer
A Scene of Table Bay | William Barnett Spencer | 1850 – 1880
Within our catalogue of fine art and collectibles, we have a hidden treasure that not many know about – a beautiful oil painting by world renowned artist William Barnett Spencer. This particular item, A Scene of Table Bay, depicts this artists best known works; sharp and highly detailed images of the beautiful sailing vessels of the late 19th century.
You can click the images in this article to view them in higher resolution.
Born in England in 1850 and following the curtails of his older brother, Richard Barnett Spencer (another accomplished sailing vessel painter), Williams relatively short life spanned only thirty years but he became an accomplished artist in his own right. Being an accomplished ship’s portraitist, William worked mainly on commissions, creating detailed and sharp images of sailing vessels for ship owners and ship commanders. He is also well known for his paintings of early iron ships that began to emerge in the 1870’s. His depictions of these clipper-like vessels show his excellent knack for detail; deck and rigging detail that is hard to find anywhere else in this time period. This detail, although beneficial to the eye, served a dual purpose in attracting commissions and establishing himself as a skilled ship painter. His commissions almost always feature animated backgrounds filled with the ebb and flow of traditional sail-age shipping and maritime activity.
Both William and his brother Richard are also known for their paintings of sea battles, based on engravings by other artists, but with their own flair, detail and style.
His best known work
William is likely most famously known for his set of 4 paintings on the Battle of Trafalgar (currently on auction by Bonhams of London for an estimated ₤24,000), Williams paintings have spread across the world and viewing (let alone owning) one of his remarkably detailed paintings in person is a true experience one wont soon forget. The viewer can often stare at the painting for hours, marveling at Williams attention to detail and fine, controlled brush work.
Williams view of an early Cape Town
Our particular painting, A Scene of Table Bay, is a wonderful depiction of life in Table Bay, Cape Town, during the early days of colonisation during the height of South Africa’s diamond and gold explorations, and before the commencement of the Boer Wars fought between Britain and the Boer Republics of South Africa.
Two cutter-like ships are shown in great detail, with flags of a British ship and a Danish ship clearly visible. Table Mountain and the young settlement of Cape Colony are both clearly visible and most interestingly, we see one of the first depictions of a steam-powered vessel in South Africa, with an unnamed steamer visible in the right-hand side of the painting. By this time, Cape Town would have been in firm British control, with William finding himself in Cape Town on board the countless ships that docked here.
Little is known of his time spent in South Africa but it is assumed that commissions were plentiful and many other paintings may be found hidden around South Africa. He was most likely very busy at one of the worlds most important harbors during The Age of Sail, with cutting edge Clippers ‘racing’from East to West and back again.
William Barnett Spencer was an infrequent exhibitor so the bulk of his work is either lost to time or unknown in private collections, although examples of their work can be found around the globe in several of the worlds leading maritime collections. This is a rare opportunity to own a piece of South African history.
For more information about the painting, or to inquire about owning it, reach out to us today!