A Journey Through `The Great Age of Sail'

Sampling of paintings and artifacts from England's National Maritime Museum recounts seafaring adventures

THE Great Age of Sail: Treasures from the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich England" is the exhibition for nautical history buffs.

But it is also a delight for those interested in art, world history, science, even antiques.

The exhibition of 80 paintings and 20 artifacts currently on view at the Peabody & Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., is being touted as the finest maritime exhibition ever presented in the United States.

Organized by the San Diego Museum of Art, where it debuted, this collection sampling is a first-time loan from the world-renowned National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, England.

General highlights include J.M.W. Turner's painting "The Battle of Trafalgar"; the chronometer used by Captain William Bligh aboard the HMS Bounty; and a sundial-compass carried by Sir Francis Drake when he circumnavigated the world in 1577.

The exhibit touches on 400 years of history, from the early 16th century to the 19th century. Specifically from a British perspective, the viewer sees how sea-faring vessels fit into history, or rather made history.

Much to its credit, the exhibit - which takes only about an hour to walk through - presents the Age of Sail through manageable themes: "Encounters with the Elements," "Shipbuilding and Navigation," "Trade and Empire," "War at Sea," "Ceremony," and "Sport."

Each room is balanced with paintings of vessels, portraits of notables - such as Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook, Captain Sir James Clark Ross, Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson - as well as artifacts such as globes, navigational instruments, and ship models.

Related quotes help evoke the adventurous spirit of the age, such as Sir Walter Raleigh's: "Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; Whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself."

The exhibit has special significance for the community here in Salem, once the US's foremost seaport and headquarters for the East India trade in the early 1800s.

There's a network of people with a specialized interest in maritime history, says Dan Sinamore, acting curator of Maritime History at the Peabody & Essex Museum.

"You'd be amazed at the people who know the most obscure minutiae...."

Yet the exhibit is designed to also appeal to those with no particular interest in nautical art and artifacts, Mr. Sinamore adds. And it succeeds.

Antiques enthusiasts - as well as maritime buffs - will be interested in navigational instruments, models, and globes, such as the hand-painted celestial globe, circa 1625.

Art-history followers will be interested in the paintings and portraits by English and Dutch masters, such as Willem Van de Velde the Elder and his son Willem.

Even a reporter can delight in the fact that some of these paintings served as photojournalism of the age, capturing historical moments such as discoveries, trade agreements, and battles.

Through artists' depictions, for example, viewers get a glimpse of Barbary pirates attacking British merchant ships during the 17th century; what the Battle of Lepanto might have been like in 1571; or the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

Yachting enthusiast and former news anchor Walter Cronkite narrates a recorded tour of the exhibit. At one point, he explains: "The early 19th century exploratory voyages in the tradition of Captain Cook all had great public appeal and were followed avidly by the people back home in Europe and America eager for stories of remote and distant lands and the great human challenges and achievements it took to reach them.

"The names of Sir James Clark Ross and Captain James Cook were as well-recognized then as Neil Armstrong and Amelia Earhart are today."

Viewers are also reminded that ships weren't always facing potential danger at sea, but also served in sport and ceremony. In Jules Achille Noel's oil on canvas we see "Napoleon III Receiving Queen Victoria at Cherbourg, 5 August 1858."

Writes the curator: "Ceremonial vessels opulently decorated within and without were floating palaces that served numerous official duties of state such as funerals, holidays, and visits to foreign lands."

* `The Great Age of Sail: Treasures from the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, England,' continues until June 2 at the Peabody & Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

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