Prison ships, quayside markets, a day out at the park and even a sketch of Spice Island by Queen Victoria herself – just some of the 50 paintings chronicling Portsmouth’s past that are on display at the city’s museum.
The Portsmouth Revisited exhibition features paintings and artworks spanning more than 300 years of history – from the reign of Charles II to the end of the Victorian era.
While the beauty of individual paintings catches the eye, it’s the underlying story which most captivates Portsmouth Museum curator and exhibition organiser, Susan Ward.
‘While people can no doubt appreciate the quality of the paintings, the exhibition is very much about telling the story behind the city’ she says.
The paintings provide a window into the past which allows us to access history through art.
‘Every drawing tells a story about life at the time – the clothing, transport, buildings and, most importantly, the activities being carried out by the people,’ explains Susan.
The oldest painting, A View of Portsmouth, dates back to 1679. Despite the passage of nearly 350 years, it portrays many familiar landmarks such as the Hot Walls, Southsea Castle and Portsmouth Cathedral.
While you can’t help but be captivated by the beauty of artist Hendrick Danckerts depiction of the maritime scene, there was very much a strategic reason behind the commissioning of the painting.
Susan says: ‘Hendrick was a Dutch artist, commissioned to paint the scene by King Charles II.
‘The painting was part of a visual survey carried out by Charles to decide where to build a new fortification.’
The maritime theme is evident throughout the exhibition.
The museum’s most famous exhibit, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, portrays the Gosport entrance to the harbour.
Susan says: ‘Turner is a very big artist to have as part of the exhibition.
‘The painting is one of 96 illustrations from different parts of the country.
‘It was commissioned as part of an annual guide book for Great Britain.’
The paintings run in chronological order with a large proportion representing the Victorian period.
One of the most striking, Receiving the Fleet, was created in 1856 and shows British naval vessels in the Solent being paraded before Queen Victoria.
‘It was painted looking back from Ryde on the Isle of Wight’ says Susan.
‘Receiving the Fleet was an annual occasion to showcase the power of Victoria’s navy. She would often visit the city and was a keen artist herself.
‘One of the paintings is taken from her own sketchbook and shows Spice Island looking back from a vessel she was on at the time.’
During the period before photographs, paintings formed the only way of creating visual records to depict locations and make informed decisions.
However, the story behind some of the paintings are a little more sinister.
One such painting, French Prizes, shows the silhouetted ghostly image of decrepit ships afloat in the harbour.
Susan says: ‘This was painted by a prisoner being held on one of the prison ships during the Napoleonic war.
‘He was imprisoned on the ship for nine years and is looking across the harbour to other prison ships which became associated with the city during this period.
‘We also have a straw marquetry work box which was made by another prisoner. The box dates back to around 1800. Prisoners would make these items to take their minds off life on the ships, but also to sell for money.’
Out of the 50 exhibits on display and almost 2,000 which Susan spent time sifting through, one particular painting stands out.
It is an illustration by local artist Richard Henry Clement Ubsdall, depicting a park scene from 1860, the height of the Victorian Period.
‘The painting shows an area of parkland between the Hot Walls and Cathedral – the fields which are now used by the Grammar School,’ she explains.
‘I love the level of depiction of what life was like during that time –children playing, people walking in the park and the backdrop of naval ships in the port.
‘It tells a story of that day in history. While it was painted more than 150 years ago, in many ways it sets a scene which many people can still relate to,’ adds Susan.
While a nautical theme dominates the exhibition there are also paintings illustrating life in and around the city, including a street market in Old Portsmouth and a farming scene looking back towards the coastline from Portsdown Hill.
The most recent painting is an illustration of the Guildhall by a Mr G Smith which was painted in 1898 – before the now iconic building was even constructed.
‘This is an architect’s drawing showing plans for the Guildhall and Municipal Art College,’ says Susan.
‘Although there are a few changes with the actual construction there are many features, such as the lions and steps, which people will be familiar with,’ she adds.
It’s this familiarity which Susan feels is at the heart of the exhibition’s appeal.
‘Many of the city’s historic landmarks are visible in the paintings.
‘It is this familiarity and sense of place which I feel appeals to the public.
‘Hopefully the exhibition is something which the people of Portsmouth can be proud of,’ she explains.