who lives and paints along England’s ruggedly beautiful southwestern
sea-coast in Cornwall, is perhaps best known for his cover art on the
novels of Douglas Reeman and Alexander Kent.
Huband made his
formal debut in America in September 2002, when he was invited to show his
oil painting entitled With All Despatch, which is featured in his
Bolitho Collection of limited edition prints, at the prestigious 23rd
Annual International Marine Art Exhibition at the Maritime Gallery at
Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. The Maritime Gallery is also
exhibiting other examples of his work.
sketching ships as a young boy in the Midlands, far from the sea. His
work has long been known in the picturesque villages in Cornwall, along
the “English Rivera” as well as in London.
Following is a Q
& A with Geoffrey Huband:
What was the
genesis of your early interest in the sea?
I don’t know where it came
from originally. All I know is that as a kid I used to spend all my time
drawing nautical subjects. I used to lie on the floor drawing ships. I
have no idea why I did. But I think one of the earliest recollections I
have is being excited by the shape of a ship, its sails, and just the way
it moved. It was in the Saturday matinee ... Captain Blood, one of those
old Flynn-type things ... I saw this ship and it stuck in my mind. I
couldn’t have been very old, seven or eight, I suppose. This was in the
Midlands, away from the sea ... didn’t have any connection with the sea.
Dad was a printer and my grandfather was an engine driver.
When did this
interest in ships take form in serious drawing or painting?
I’ve still got drawings
that I’ve kept from the age of six or seven, and ninety percent of the
drawings are about ships. I sort of understood the shape of them. I was
just fascinated with anything I saw that was associated with those kinds
did you work in early and how did you progress?
I did lots of drawings, and
mostly watercolors. But they nearly always had something maritime, and it
was always sailing ships, as well.
Do you recall
your first “serious” painting?
When I was an art student
in the sixties, I never regarded maritime painting as even being on the
agenda. It was sort of the era of Look Back in Anger, and reality plays.
We were much more likely to be sent out to paint the local iron foundry or
the gas works or the rubbish tip. Anything a bit picturesque was
definitely out. Anything from the imagination wasn’t taken seriously, so
I avoided maritime subjects whilst I was in college. I would have never
presented anything like that to a college professor. But because my dad
was a printer, I used to do my own Christmas cards, and invariably I used
to do something maritime.
I remember the
day I actually decided to have a go at marine painting, the thing I really
loved. I’d been working in Mousehole in Cornwall as a freelance artist.
I went there when I was about twenty-four, set up a studio, and painted
local harbor scenes. There were always boats in them, but water
fascinated me as well. So I kind of found my way into maritime subjects
by the back door.
There was an
artist in a studio adjoining my studio, and someone came around to see me,
and said they’d just bought a maritime picture from him. They were
thrilled with it. I saw it (Geoffrey laughs), and I couldn’t believe it.
Then they told me how much they’d paid for it. In those days it was
probably a few hundred quid, or something like that. I thought, ‘You paid
that much for this picture ... I’ve got to have a go!’ That actually was
the point at which I decided I would renew my interest in maritime
Was your focus
at this time going to be on painting ships?
Yes ... it was the first
time I thought of purely painting ships for the sake of painting ships.
And whilst I felt I could do a better job than this piece of work I’d
seen, I think on reflection what I really learned was at that stage how
little I really knew about ships. I loved the shapes, I loved what they
looked like, I liked the way they moved. I really didn’t know very much
about the material, I just thought I did.
So what did
Well, that started the
research. I had a lot of books about ships, but a lot of information,
particularly the historical stuff, was actually quite inaccurate. And
without being a nail or rivet counter, as it were, I hadn’t been that
fanatic about it, because it was the shape of things that interested me.
It wasn’t how many of this, or how many of that, it was just how the
things looked. And I realized you really needed to know exactly how they
were put together, how they worked, and I proceeded to do that with a
degree of conviction.
Where did you
go to find that information?
I started with books, but
very rapidly found my way to the National Maritime Museum (in Greenwich,
London), which at that time was just about the most wonderful resource you
could possible have. It was full of ship models. I went on many, many
occasions. I knew what I was looking for ... I knew the type of ships I
was looking for, I knew the period I was looking for, I knew the kind of
research I needed to do.
working at that time mostly on naval vessels?
No, because I was still
fishing around in the marketplace ... I was still doing paintings of
coastal scenes, because I had to earn a living. The kids were growing up,
so there had to be a fair sprinkling of stuff that we knew would sell.
And I realized, too, that there wasn’t a strong demand for maritime
paintings. It was small among a certain group of people, a niche thing.
And I was dubious about whether you could actually make a living doing
just maritime stuff. As time progressed, I still continued doing the
village scenes, but I moved slightly away from that toward painting
village life, people involved in village activities, basically, because I
had always been interested in the Newlyn School of painters (a colony of
artists based in or near to Newlyn, a fishing village adjacent to Penzance,
Cornwall, from the 1880’s until the early twentieth century), and that’s
what they did. And I was working in the area where they worked.
The Newlyn School
of painters had a tradition which was essentially painting day-to-day
subjects. I suppose the painter in that group of artists that I admired
most is Stanhope Forbes. He just painted village life, fishing boats in
harbor, that sort of stuff, and I liked his style and I liked his
technique. He was a very direct painter, and that is something I try to
carry through into my marine painting.
At the time, I
never really regarded maritime painting as being serious, proper painting,
so it wasn’t anything I publicized too much.
this for you? Was it your involvement with Douglas Reeman?
That made a big difference,
a huge difference, because I then tended to concentrate on almost nothing
else. But that came about with a fairly significant kind of life change,
as well. At the time I got involved with Douglas, I was still primarily
painting general subjects around Cornwall, some maritime subjects, for
people who wanted those kind of pictures. But in the winter I went to
Spain to paint daily activity pictures associated with maritime subjects
-- fishermen mending their nets, boats hauled up on the beach -- because I
found that in southern Spain the fishermen still worked in groups much in
the same way as they would have done sixty years ago in Mousehole. But
now they don’t do that anymore ... the fishing industry of that type is
The reason I
switched to maritime painting was that I had an accident whilst riding my
bicycle, and I found that the only thing I had time for was maritime
painting. But I guess before that about a third of what I did was
probably marine paintings very much in the vain of what we’re doing now,
because that was the type of painting that brought me to Douglas in the
first place. I was doing those sort of paintings, but they were in tandem
with my other work. I didn’t really know which was the serious work,
which way I was going to go.
Do you have a
different view of maritime painting today?
Yes, I’ve got a total
commitment to maritime painting.
What about the
critics? Do they look at maritime art more positively than in the past?
I think there’s a very,
very slight shift, but I think in what one might call the main stream of
art there’s still no good opinion there.
And yet there
is a demand for good quality marine paintings.
I think there is, and I
think it’s become slightly more respectable, probably because there are
not necessarily more or better painters around, but there are more
painters who are getting better known and appreciated. I think that makes
recognition been driven to some degree by the resurgence in the last few
years in both the UK and US for nautical fiction?
It has to be. It’s
difficult to know without examining the evidence, but my general feeling
is that Douglas’s work and that of other maritime authors have nourished a
need for people who like reading this stuff. It all perhaps originated
with Hornblower, and then they cast about, wondering what else is there
like this. A few years ago there wasn’t very much. Now there is, and
they want to be associated with it.
Do you sense a
synergy between the written words of maritime authors and the work that
you and other artists produce?
Undoubtedly, and I think
they probably regard it in much the similar way. I think probably that
writers of maritime fiction or maritime history would still not be highly
regarded in the same way as people in what you might call main stream
writing. I don’t see an author of maritime or historical fiction getting
the Booker Prize, for instance, any more than you see a maritime artist
getting the Turner Prize. So I think in that respect there’s a
similarity, but nonetheless there is still a big market there, and a huge
amount of interest. And we’re in the happy position now of having much
more information available to us than the people who were living at the
time. The depictions at the time were often simply that, just a sort of
imaginative representation. Not many of the artists had access to the
real details and real facts.
Do you have a
favorite ship from the Bolitho novels?
Well, there are two
extremes, really. I love naval cutters. I just like them as ships. They
fascinate me. I read about them. I like them because they totally behave
differently on the ocean to a large ship. You can actually get close up
to them to see what’s going on. You can see the hands-on process of what
seamen are doing. And these things can dash and dart about. They can do
things that other ships can’t do. They’re a pretty good foil to much
larger ships that sit in the water, but don’t move in the same way. So
you’ve got this contrast between the cutter, bouncing around in choppy
seas, and a larger ship, which just sits there, largely unaffected by a
sea-chop, or just moves very, very slowly. At the other end of the scale,
there’s the grandeur of the seventy-four, that I find most interesting.
There are so many actions with frigates, as well, but I suppose they’ve
almost become a cliche. I like painting frigates, they’re beautiful
ships, but it’s quite nice to find something else to paint.
naval subjects from the Age of Sail have you painted?
I used to try and work
through series when I got involved in research. I did quite a bit of
research into what I thought were historically exciting events. So I
painted a series of pictures of Cook’s Endeavour. I also did a
series of Bounty pictures. I got involved with a guy who was technical
advisor on the Mel Gibson film, Bounty. He was a bit of a fanatic,
really. He even had Bligh’s knife and fork, with which he ate his meal’s,
and Bligh’s tea set. I did some work for him. And I also did some
illustrations for the National Maritime Museum’s bicentenary publication
about Bounty and the mutiny.
And, of course,
you can’t paint maritime pictures without reference to Nelson. I did
quite a few different subjects there. I used to like researching what was
happening (during Nelson’s time). There are pretty good publications
about Trafalgar, and I would look at reproductions of what happened at a
particular time, and assemble a painting from that. There’s no end to
different events that took place during Trafalgar. It wasn’t just the
“breaking of the line.” Captain (Henry) Digby (of HMS Africa)
received the sword of the captain of the (one-hundred-and-thirty-gun)
Santissima Trinidad. I painted that subject ... the small
sixty-four-gun vessel and this monster ship. I tried to pick as many
different or interesting subjects as I could.
One of the
pictures I admire was Norman Wilkinson’s portrayal of the rescue of a
young girl from the water after the (French 74) Achille blew up at
Trafalgar. She had stowed away, and was rescued by British sailors, who
were looking for survivors, and reunited with her fiance. It was quite an
interesting story. I admired this painting because it was a different
I was asked, as
well, to do a painting of the Battle of the Saintes for a regiment, The
King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who formed one of the first groups of
marines to serve in a naval ship.
How do you
proceed with a client who commissions a painting?
Well, they’ve usually got
some idea of what they want, in terms of the event they want depicted, or
the kind of event. Usually we can pick up by talking to the individual
what kind of thing it is they really want. It may not necessarily be what
they’re asking for. When they ask for something, they’re probably
referring in fact not to want they want, but to something they’ve already
seen. But you can generally determine from what a person says the kind of
picture you think that they may be wanting. The more you talk to them,
the more that picture actually forms in their mind ... you’ve got a mental
reference library of subjects. You try and think of in what context you
would fit that information, so that you can have historical accuracy, and
at the same time make a pleasing picture.
are much more than pictures of ships. Wind, overall weather conditions,
the sea, and, particularly, people combine to create dynamic images. A
good example is With All Despatch. How did you come to achieve
I never saw how you could
separate the people from the ships. To me, it seemed that they were an
essential ingredient. You simply couldn’t have a ship apparently sailing
on its own. I think it’s a fair possibility that it goes back to the
Saturday matinee ... swarms of people moving from one ship to another, as
they come alongside, with two ships rushing together. They kind of move
almost as one, and that’s the way I see figures on ships. I don’t see
them as individuals, I see the groupings as being more important. The
closest analogy I can make to that is the grouping of the figures in the
flag-raising at Iwo Jima. It tells you everything ... it isn’t the
With All Despatch, one can almost hear the shouts of the seamen aboard
the cutters and French corvette.
When I was a kid, I used to
lie on the carpet drawing and making sound affects. I don’t do that
anymore, but I think if you’ve sailed, as well, you’re very much aware of
what’s actually going on ... you’re going down wind, there’s a curious
silence, the movement of the ships is different ... there’s a difference
between the movements of the cutters and the corvette. You know they’re
going down wind, but you’re sort of swaying from port to starboard, but
there’s a certain noise, there’s a certain clatter that’s going on. But
as these ships get closer, you realize there would be shouts and cries and
the sound of the wind through rigging, a sort of drumming, the slap of
canvas. Douglas actually wrote this way in his stories. You immediately
have a sense of time and place, because he describes exactly the type of
sounds you hear. The sounds are as evocative as what you see. This comes
back to the groups of figures. They imply that there was sound there, as
Do you have
plans to do more prints from the Bolitho novels?
Yes, there are a lot of
paintings that would lend themselves well to prints, and there is the
possibility of creating new paintings for the Bolitho Collection.
spoke of the Newlyn School of painters. Have other painters influenced
Well, in general terms, I
would have said that the painter that I admire most, that influences me
most, no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m sketching or painting any
subject at all, has got to be John Singer Sargent. As far as I’m
concerned, he is the greatest painter of the last two centuries. I admire
him for all the reasons for which he was criticized, and that is that he
was the most brilliant technician, and he could bring out any subject,
with a minimum of brush marks ... everything appears to be done with an
economy of effort. He was essentially a portrait painter, but he did
paint other things as well, but it’s just his rendering of textures and
materials. I used to go to London just to look at a portrait he had
painted of some alderman or something like that. I just liked to look at
the waistcoat, and the way it was painted. It was just superb. It was
silk and it was striped, but when you got close to the picture it was just
slashes and dashes of paint. When you stood back ten feet you could touch
that waistcoat. You knew exactly what the texture was. He was a brilliant
technician, in the same way that I admired painters of the Newlyn School,
Forbes, in particular.
As far as marine
painters go, I admire many, some of them living now, who produce some
lovely work. But if I have to look at the style and the directness, and
the sort of bravura, it has to be Montague Dawson -- without being
pretentious -- that I have more in common with. I have a feel of the way
he did the subject. It’s what he leaves out, as well as what he actually
puts in, which makes his paintings great. He doesn’t need to put
everything in, because he understands the shape of things, he understands
the way things are. And in his pictures you can hear the roar, hear the
tremble of the rigging, you can hear everything. You can hear the cries
of the seamen, you can hear the cries of the gulls. And you can feel and
smell the sea. I like to to feel that the sea is something dynamic that
is moving, and should be painted with a certain amount of slash and dash
and bravura, and not too much revisiting. One day when I was out on the
quay in Mousehole, a very old gentleman came up to me, who was old enough
to remember Stanhope Forbes. Forbes was always outside painting, and he
had a reputation for painting with the style of a fencer. He would stand
well back from his canvas, step back a few paces and then step forward,
and put on a dab of paint, and then step back again. Obviously, he had a
group of spectators there, fisherman and so on. And this old boy said to
me, “I saw Mr Forbes painting, and I said to him, ‘Well, boy, you can
flourish un an kydiddle un, but that look like it growed there.’” So we
try not to flourish un
an kydiddle un too much.