A Look at the Unknown and Hope for the Future: The Artwork of Shipyard and Museum Staff Artist Thomas C. Skinner

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CRUISER USS PORTSMOUTH AT PIER, oil on canvas 1945, by THOMAS C. SKINNER 1956.47.04

Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard.  Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him.  A vat of molten steel.  Red hot metal beams being bent into shape.  Yards of canvas transformed into sails.  The welcome respite of a lunch break.  The intensity of a foreman’s face.  A ship being refitted for the next voyage.  Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.

Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper.  His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery.  And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather.   Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time.  His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.   Read more

Marco Polo and the Bank of St. George

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Camogli, Italy with the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on the Ligurian coast. (QW 114)

Some of my most interesting research projects begin with something very minor, which leads me down a path that I never expected. This one began with a beautiful watercolor showing Camogli, Italy with a church and part of a castle behind it. That was a quick research project: get the history of the structures that are featured and the name of the body of water. Then I looked up the history of the artist, which is where it all unraveled into several days of research.

The artist is Admiral Bertram Mordaunt Chambers, a British naval official who was the principal port convoy officer of Halifax harbor during the December 6, 1917 explosion. His official reports state that he ate breakfast overlooking the harbor through his large glass windows, and then five minutes after he left the room the glass shattered into tiny shards that tore up the woodwork that had been behind his seat. He is one lucky guy!   Read more

A good story

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USCS Robert J. Walker

At the end of the last post a story was promised, and really it is too interesting not to share. Here at the Monitor Center we are fortunate enough to have our own x-ray machine. Normally we use this device to x-ray concretions to determine what the artifact inside looks like. On a Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago, we were examining something a little different. Will, Fred – the conservator for the museum collection, and I were x-raying a painting.

Now this particular painting depicts the USCS Robert J. Walker, a survey ship that served in the United States Coast Survey from 1848 until it sank in 1860 resulting in the death of 20 crew members. The United States Coast Survey was an ancestor organization of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The Walker disaster was the greatest loss of life ever experienced by NOAA or any of its precursor organizations.  June 21, 2013 was the 153rd anniversary of the sinking; it was also World Hydrography Day. This year NOAA observed this day by honouring the men who lost their lives on the Robert J. Walker. They have also requested the painting as a loan from The Mariners’ Museum so that it can be displayed to commemorate these lost sailors.   Read more