24 May 2018

By Pieter van der Merwe

In the early 1900s the head of Kawasaki shipbuilding at Kobe, Kojiro Matsukata (1865–1950), amassed a large collection of Western art of around 1000 items of all sorts. His aim was to found a national gallery of it in Japan but this only happened in 1959, after his death, with the creation of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. It holds a substantial part of the Matsukata collection, but much was also dispersed through sales in Japan during his lifetime. A current NMWA project is cataloguing the Matsukata holdings, including items sold, of which some are now unlocated. One of these is a picture by W.L.Wyllie of what appears to be a barge repair yard, sold in a large Japanese auction in 1941 (by Seijusha at Asahikaikan, Osaka,  26–30 March, lot 122, with the title ‘Preparations’). It is probably a watercolour, though even that is not clear in the catalogue, but it may be one originally titled ‘The Providence repairing’, exhibited at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1885. It shows the Thames barge Providence of Rochester, with another beyond, beached at what is probably a yard on the east side of the Medway at Rochester, downstream of the city bridge. The catalogue image is so far the only known record of it and not clear enough to read the name on either the other barge shown or the sign on the gable end of the apparently 18th-century building to the right. The questions are, whose yard is it and exactly where?

Wyllie (1851–1931) knew the Medway well and in 1884 his growing family left London to live briefly at Chatham and then at Hoo, high on the west side of the river, until they moved to Portsmouth in 1906. Medway subjects proliferated in his early work and it is possible this view may show the boatyard of W.G. Gill & Sons – a family he came to know well – which was roughly on the Rochester and Chatham boundary, just west of the now long-vanished Chatham Central railway station. If it is not, then it is probably another close by. The boy in the foreground boat, wearing a blue sailor-suit, may be one of Wyllie’s sons. The eldest, Harold, would have been five in 1885 so whether the drawing is ‘The Providence repairing’ depends a little on the boy’s apparent age and identity. If anyone can confirm it is Gill’s yard, or has good evidence for  an alternative, perhaps they could let us know.

The National Maritime Museum holds Wyllie’s studio collection of working sketches –over 5000 items –  which he originally kept in ‘scrapbook’ form, and there is at least one other study of the Providence among them (PAF1959).

This was reproduced in 1901 in his small instructional manual on Marine Painting in Water-Colour, but all the pictures in that were taken from existing sketches, not done specially, so it could easily also date from the early 1880s.

Wyllie in sale cat. 1941