The Artist Who Loved Boats: Percy "Powder" Thorburn || Tom Cross, David Hale & Pin Armitage

Percy Thorburn was well educated and came from a wealthy family. As a boy, he ran away to sea and became involved in a mutiny on board a square-rigged schooner in Australia. Later, he was involved in a gun-running expedition from Brixham to Africa but, changing his mind when involved with cut-throat pirates, he made for a different port and exchanged the guns for wine. All this, it says here with a commendably straight face, provided him with the experience necessary for a career with the RNVR aboard a minesweeper in the Great War.

I’ve started with this tale of what can only be described as a “character” because this is a book which is as much about the man, Percy Thorburn, as his paintings. We’re not told how he got his nickname, but a broad guess seems in order.

An entertaining life story doesn’t make a great painter, but it does concentrate the mind and excite the interest. In this case, it also tells us that this was, indeed, a man who loved boats and that when he paints them, he knows what he’s talking about, in much the same way as Joseph Conrad’s stories of the sea are informed by personal experience.

The first thing you’re going to notice, leafing through these pages, is that by no means all of Percy Thorburn’s paintings are of boats: there are a lot of landscapes and coastal scenes as well and it’s clear that the artist loved the places boats took him just as much as the boats themselves. These, in spite of what the front cover illustration might suggest, are not the grand vessels that most marine artists paint, but rather small working boats just going about their business. Although this often involves quite heavy seas, Thorburn does not introduce drama for its own sake and you won’t see towering waves that threaten to swamp the craft at any minute.

As an artist, Percy Thorburn is perfectly competent and his landscapes have a tranquil quality that suggest a sailor’s rest. His boats are well-depicted without being over-detailed and they record the ordinary, mostly inshore, craft that often go unremembered. You may never have heard of a Leigh Bawley, but there’s one here and, if you need to know what it looks like, A Leigh Bawley in the Evening Sun will fit the bill nicely.

As an entertaining read and a good look round a variety of maritime subjects, this book is well worth the cover price. I’m not sure that it particularly informs the practising artist, but this isn’t its intention. If Percy Thorburn’s life had gone unrecorded, we’d be just that little bit poorer.

First published 2006

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