Yacht painting mystery solved

The Arts
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THE MYSTERY of two Gareloch steam yachts has been solved by a local expert in the field.

It all began in August when Mary-Jane Selwood of the Anderson Trust Local Collection, which is housed in Helensburgh Library, researched the work of watercolourist Tom Campbell (1865-1943) because one of his works is in the collection.

She said that Tom was an exponent of gouache, who painted views of the west coast and islands, using a sharp, highly coloured style. A most prolific painter, his subjects included landscapes, children playing on sandy beaches, and a number of marine scenes.

Mary-Jane said: “The work we have, ‘Steam Yacht, Rhu Pier’, is a view which conjures up a bygone era of great affluence.

“To anyone familiar with the topographical features of the Gareloch nowadays, the artist’s view is not immediately recognisable. He appears to have used a fair amount of artistic licence to arrive at an interesting pictorial composition.

“Quite apart from that, however, this coastline has been developed in modern times to accommodate the Rhu yacht marina.

“The old stone pier at Rhu, the end of which is in the painting, was closed in 1920 and eventually incorporated into the structure of the marina.”

The mystery is over the steam yacht in the painting, which was identified as The Nahlin by some authorities in the Scottish art world.

The question was whether the yacht in the painting was this exotic steam yacht built in 1930 for Lady Yule, and whose on-board guests included Wallis Simpson, accompanied by Edward, Duke of Windsor.

“The yacht is remarkably similar in appearance to the one in the Campbell painting,” Mary-Jane said.

“A cautionary note should, however, be sounded regarding that particular attribution, because several people who lived in the locality at the time when this yacht was around, recalled The Nahlin as a larger vessel than that depicted in the painting.

“It would be more romantic to believe that the un-named yacht in Tom Campbell’s painting was indeed The Nahlin, with a measure of artistic licence making such an attribution more than an outside probability.”

The Nahlin is still in use and is owned by industrial entrepreneur Sir James Dyson, who purchased her from Sir Anthony Bamford, Chairman of JCB. In a current photograph the vessel looks too big to have been the one in the painting.

Comparing the photograph above of the vessel on which the royal liaison first caught the attention of the news media to one of the painting, it certainly looked to me, and many others, that the painted yacht was significantly smaller.

Local man Iain McAllister (right), a Classic Yacht Consultant who specialises in historical yachting research and currently works as a yacht broker in Poole, Dorset, believes that the steam yacht depicted is actually Majesta, owned from 1927 until World War Two by Old Kilpatrick iron merchant and shipbuilder James ’Toby’ Napier.

Iain’s sailing experience began when his uncle, Helensburgh man Henry Curtis, first took him sailing in the Mylne/Dickie of Tarbert boat, ‘Dolphin of Rhu’, which belonging to Dr Jack, in the 1960s.

Brought up with tales of a forbear crewing the 1887 America’s Cup challenger, Thistle, he learned the art of helming in the then Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club’s Loch Long One Designs.

He said: “All of this enabled me to absorb a rich, local, but far from parochial, yachting, yacht designing and building culture, now long gone.

“Since 1989 I have been imparting my take on all that to manage classic yachts and their restoration, and researching and writing about it — including the last William Fife cutter, Solway Maid, the Watson gaff cutter Peggy Bawn, and co-ordinating the publication of a definitive biography of 19th century yacht designer George Lennox Watson.”

He believes that there is a strong case to be made for identifying the vessel as Majesta, owned by Royal Northern Yacht Club Commodore Napier.

“Some will also recognise this as the name of the main reception room at what is now the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club at Rhu, which was named after this yacht,” he said.

“As Mrs Selwood said, the artist appears to have used a fair amount of licence. It’s understandable that some would suggest the yacht is Lady Yule’s Nahlin, which was prominently moored off Rhu Pier on an off during the 1930s — prominent both because she is huge, 300 feet long, or about the length of one of Caledonian MacBrayne’s present-day outer island ferries , and because of her part in the King Edward and Mrs Simpson story.

“There are still people living locally who remember Nahlin off Rhu.

“But Majesta was only 125 feet long, with a very different funnel and superstructure profile, and noticeably having always had her deck houses either really of wood of painted to look like wood, a feature of the yacht in the painting.

“Could artistic licence have reduced the steam yacht’s length by almost half?”

James Napier owned Majesta (pictured below in a 1930s image) from 1927 until her 1939 sale to the Earl of Arran, under whose ownership she served in the Second World War as HM Armed Yacht Majesta, a patrol vessel on the Thames and at Aultbea, Caithness, followed by a period at Campbeltown as a rescue tug and accommodation vessel.

Iain says that this was just another scene in a colourful life which began when she was launched as Ziska at Ailsa Shipbuilding, Troon, in 1899, commissioned by a retired north west of England cotton miller and merchant who enjoyed her for only two summers at Beaumaris, Anglesey.

She was sold to the Lancashire and Western Fisheries Joint Committee and converted to the Fisheries cruiser James Fell. Apart from protection duties she also would tow the sailing fishing vessels to their grounds in calm weather.

In 1910 she was restored to a yacht and given her final name Majesta.

The owner before James Napier was the Earl of Morton who based her at his highland estate, Conaglen, Ardgour, where, apart from acting as a pleasure vessel, she was also his private mode of transport, and an extension to the shooting lodge.

Majesta’s late 1920s to late 1930s period moored at Rhu in the ownership of James Napier, of The Drums, Old Kilpatrick, who had his yachting houses at Glenelg, Garelochhead, and later Aikenshaw, Rahane. Many old postcards feature her.

This coincided with his rise through the upper echelons of local yachting circles as a Vice-Commodore of both the Gareloch Yacht Club and the Royal Northern Yacht Club.

Iain said: “He must have been one of the main instigators in the Royal Northern’s 1937 move from Rothesay to Rhu and the eventual dissolution of the Gareloch Yacht Club.

“As he was a close descendant of ‘The Father of Shipbuilding’, Robert Napier of Shandon — his mother’s grandfather — it seems appropriate in the story of both Clyde shipbuilding and yachting that Napier should have been one of the last local steam yacht owners, and from 1927."

In 1827 two of Robert Napier’s earliest steam paddle yachts competed in the then Northern Yacht Club’s race for steam yachts from Rothesay to Cumbrae and back, with his Clarence winning from a rival called Helensburgh.

James Napier was the Royal Northern’s first post-war Commodore and held the post from 1946 until his death at Rahane in 1953. Majesta was eventually broken up in 1952.