After serving eight years at sea, Clarkson Stanfield sought alternative employment working as a scenery painter for London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His career in the theatre was to be both long and immensely successful, involving some 170 productions, for which he painted more than 550 set decorations. From the 1820s, Stanfield also regularly exhibited easel paintings of the marine subjects he knew so well from his own past as a sailor.
In 1830 Mount St Michael, Cornwall was shown at London’s Royal Academy, where this depiction of a famous English landmark became the first of Stanfield’s paintings to attract significant attention. The Gentleman’s Magazine noted at the time that the work was ‘executed with the wildly romantic effect for which this artist is so distinguished’ – a valid comment, given Stanfield’s inclusion of a shipwreck narrative as the focal point of his monumental canvas. This majestic painting marked a turning point in the artist’s career. William IV was so impressed by the picture’s imposing presence at the Royal Academy that he commissioned two new paintings from Stanfield. Royal favour in turn brought him success in the exhibition world, leading to dozens of other major commissions from London’s society figures. As a result, Stanfield was able to resign from the Drury Lane Theatre at the end of 1834, after some twelve years of service – at which point he was immediately made a Royal Academician – and to concentrate more fully upon easel painting.
The very principles that had made the artist’s theatrical work such a striking success – heightened realism and dramatic lighting – spilled over naturally into his oil paintings. In his day, Stanfield was, in the field of marine painting, a genuine rival to J. M. W. Turner. As the noted critic John Ruskin wrote in 1843, in the first volume of his Modern Painters: ‘One work of Stanfield alone presents us with as much concentrated knowledge of sea and sky, as, diluted, would have lasted any one of the old masters his life’.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 15.