The Cape Horner, the Cutty Sark, s.d.
oil on canvas
102.5 x 127 cm. (40.25 x 50 in.)
signed Montague Dawson (lower left)
Catalogue Note Sotheby's sale
In the mid-nineteenth century, clippers were the fastest ships at sea, traversing the trade routes between England and the Far East as well as between New York and San Francisco around Cape Horn, aptly earning the title of Cape Horner. Cutty Sark was one of the last tea clippers ever built, ordered by Captain John Willis and constructed by Scott & Linton in 1869. While a French frigate inspired her design, a Scottish poem inspired her name and figurehead. At the prow of the ship was a carved likeness of Nannie Dee, a witch from Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter (1791) who wears a short white chemise known as a cutty sark, and whose outstretched hand holds a horse’s tail. As the poem describes it, when a drunken Tam encounters Nannie’s beguiling dancing he passionately taunts “Weel done, Cutty Sark!” she chases him menacingly, and just as she grabs the tail of his horse he crosses a stream and escapes – for she is incapable of crossing water. While it is ironic that one of the fastest ships in the world was named after a land-bound witch, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!” became a fitting exclamation whenever the vessel returned home from its many exotic voyages.
280 feet long, 36 feet broad, Cutty Sark saw eight tea seasons under Captain George Moodie, followed by many successful seasons in the Australian wool trade. Despite the fact that the Cutty Sark’s racing career began in 1870 with a slow maiden voyage to and from Shanghai, she would quickly prove herself to be one of the fastest vessels to ever sail at sea, rivaled only early in her career by the famous Thermopylae, whom she had been specifically built to beat. After achieving some of the fastest voyages ever recorded, Cutty Sark was sold in 1895 to a Lisbon firm (who changed her name to Ferreira), and was then purchased in 1922 by Captain Dowman, whose widow bequested the vessel to the Thames Nautical College, Greenwich. In 1954 she was dry-docked in Greenwich, London, where she can be visited by the public today as part of the National Historic Fleet. Montague Dawson’s majestic portrayal of the Cutty Sark cutting gracefully through rough seas is a testament to the ship’s power and speed, and it demonstrates why his detailed depictions of clipper ships are among the most celebrated of his career and of the genre.