Formal portrait of the ship Cato, against a Yorkshire coastal background.

Signed and dated by Luny at lower left, with original well-lettered label on verso.

Stockton, near Whitby, Yorkshire.

SKU SF000719 Category


Important image of a ship associated with Matthew Flinders, that would shortly become one of the most famous early shipwrecks in eastern Australian waters. This is a fine ship’s portrait, by one of the great exponents of the art. Cato, a 430 ton vessel launched near Whitby in about 1800 and painted by Luny soon after her launching, made her way quickly to New South Wales. In August 1803, as part of a group of three ships, she headed northwards on the east coast of Australia and ran aground together with her sister ship HMS Porpoise on the consequently named Wreck Reef on the Great Barrier Reef. Matthew Flinders, returning to England in search of a ship to replace Investigator, was one of those aboard the small fleet, as was his artist William Westall. In a great feat of seamanship, Flinders navigated Porpoise‘s cutter more than 700 miles back to Port Jackson, and arranged for the relief and rescue of his wrecked shipmates from Wreck Reef.

Still unexplained today are the actions of the third ship, Bridgewater. According to the survivors, she made no effort to rescue survivors, quickly putting about for Batavia after the wreck. Once in Batavia, she reported both Porpoise and Cato lost with all hands. The wreck site was identified by Ben Cropp in 1965. The original manuscript titling label, preserved on the back of the painting, describes it as “Portrait of the Ship Cato Passing Whitby [built?] at Stockton. 1800. Painted by Luni”. Stockton, now known as Stockton on Tees, was a major centre of ship building in the eighteenth century. Situated on the north side of the river Tees, ships continued to be built there until the present day, being launched into the deep water river some ten miles from the coast. Whitby, a centre for small scale commercial shipping, was about twenty miles to the south. As is typical with ships’ portraits of the period, the ship is shown from two angles, on the wind and running before. It is shown at sea off the eastern point of Whitby, with the famous abbey ruin on the point.

The portrait was painted by the established marine artist Thomas Luny during his most successful period; between 1780 and 1802 he exhibited in a total of twenty nine exhibitions with the British East India Company and painted a number of their ships as both formal and private commissions.

Thomas Luny (1759 1837), born in Cornwall, probably at St. Ewe, was an English artist and painter, mostly of seascapes and other marine based works. At the age of eleven, Luny left Cornwall to live in London. There he became the apprentice of Francis Holman, a marine painter who would have a great and long lasting artistic influence on Luny. Luny remained until 1780 in Holman’s London studio, which was first situated in Broad Street, St. George’s, and later relocated to Old Gravel Lane.

In September 1777 Luny left Holman’s studio for a while, to journey to France. During this particular expedition, he almost certainly strayed from France itself. His first exhibited picture in London, seen at the Society of Artists that same year, was given the title ‘A distant view of the island of Madeira and Porto Santo’, suggesting that an engraving had inspired his choice of subject. Similarly, it is unlikely that Luny was on hand for the Battle of the Nile, 1798, and the bombardment of Algiers, 1816, both of which he illustrated with dramatic atmosphere and credible realism. After leaving Holman’s studio in 1780, Luny moved to Leadenhall Street during 1783. It was around this time than he frequently exhibited at the Royal Academy, in a total of twenty nine exhibitions between 1780 1802. In Leaderhall Street, Luny became acquainted with a “Mr. Merle”, a dealer and framer of paintings who promoted Luny’s paintings for over twenty years, to great success. Luny also found a wealthy source of business in Leadenhall Street, where the British East India Company had their headquarters as their officers commissioned many paintings and portraits from Luny.

This relationship between the Company and Luny also had several non monetary benefits for the artist; it seems probable that, considering the great detail and realistic look of many of his sketches of locations such as Naples, Gibraltar and Charleston, South Carolina, Luny was occasionally invited as a guest on the Company’s ships for special occasions and voyages. Several years later, in 1807, Luny decided to move again, this time to Teignmouth in Devon. He continued painting until his death on 30 September, 1837. Perhaps his best known work today is the painting in the National Library of Australia showing another ship off Whitby: Earl of Pembroke, later renamed Endeavour for Cook’s first voyage.

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Thomas Luny


Oil on wood