The steamship 'Great Eastern' off Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, July 1866

(Updated, December 2019) At a time when the largest ships afloat were under 5,000 tons, 'Great Eastern' had a designed tonnage of 18,914. Like the 'Great Western' and 'Great Britain' before her, the ship was a one-off. There was nothing else like her in the world. Yet she was considered a commercial failure, ending her career as a floating billboard before being scrapped in 1888. The artist, Henry Clifford (d. 1905), was a second engineer on the 'Great Eastern' and a cousin by marriage of Charles Tilston Bright, one of the pioneers of early cable laying. He painted numerous oils of the ship, this one showing it approaching Heart's Content, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, on completion of the successful laying of the transatlantic cable in 1866, in which Clifford was responsible for looking after the cable machinery on board. The painting is signed 'H. Clifford', lower left above an inscription by him reading 'Great Eastern at the buoy / July 27'. 'Trinity' is inscribed to the right under the mouth of the bay. The buoy is presumably the one marking the cable, lower right, bearing the initials 'T.C.M.C' for 'Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. Two similar buoys are hanging off the port bow of the 'Great Eastern' and the same letters are shown on the Company's houseflag, which is flying from its third mast ahead of a white ensign and a blue ensign on the third and fourth. A French tricoleur flies at the foremast and all three probably indicate the presence of French participants on board, with Royal Naval and reserve or auxiliary officers. The second mast bears a complex flag possibly made for the occasion: the right half bears red-and-white horizontal stripes as in the United States flag; the left half has a St George Cross (England) in the upper left quadrant and a Union in lower right, apparently on an indeterminate blue ground. The painting is reproduced in Bright's son Charles's book, 'Submarine Telegraphs: Their History, Construction, and Working' (1898). As in other views of the period the ship's fourth funnel (that immediately aft of the third mast) is missing, having been removed in her 1864 conversion to cable-laying and replaced by a cable tank. For some now unclear reason the painting was previously titled 'The steamship 'Great Eastern' in a choppy sea', which is hardly true and also uninformative considering the information inherent in the compoaistion.

Object Details

ID: BHC3383
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Clifford, Henry
Vessels: Great Eastern (1858)
Date made: Mid 19th century
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 685 mm x 915 mm; Frame: 815 mm x 1120 mm

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