Buttersworth, Thomas (1768-1842)

Buttersworth, Thomas (1768-1842)

Ships set sail atop tumultuous scenes and below overcast skies in the dramatic works of marine artist Thomas Buttersworth.

Buttersworth’s affinity with the sea began when he enlisted in the Royal Navy. His career spanned for 25 years, and he worked his way up to the position of midshipman. It was during this time that he began to paint, often depicting scenes of the battles and skirmishes he was involved in. The accuracy of a piece representing the 1797 Battle of Cape St Vincent seems to indicate that Buttersworth was drawing upon his own experiences upon the rough seas. The painstaking detail applied to each warship, their sails billowing, each rope a thin line of paint, points to knowledge only a seafarer could possess.

It seems that an injury forced Buttersworth to retire in 1800. This was the turning point to embarking on a professional painting career. Maritime pictures had been popular in Britain since the 17th century, and were growing steadily so during Buttersworth's time. With the increasing monopoly of the East India Company, Britain’s connection to its seafaring identity was growing stronger.

Indeed, the East India Company required an artist to capture their ships and help to forge an identity of British supremacy across the seas. The intricacy of his works and Buttersworth’s experience served him well. He soon found himself appointed as their official Marine Painter.

There is a great majesty to both the grandeur of his carefully rendered ships and the evocative atmospheres he creates. His palette was typically infused with greys, overcast skies drawing the viewer’s attention to the ship at the heart of the image, tossed upon roiling waves. Yet there is a delicateness to his hand in the execution of such gloomy scenes. They do not appear drab or overly dramatised.

Nature is in thrall in Buttersworth’s image, her majesty not forgotten yet bowing to the greater majesty of the ships he so clearly represented.

Buttersworth’s images have proved very popular in the United States since this time. This is in thanks to his son James Edward Buttersworth (1817–1894). The younger Buttersworth was also a marine artist, and in emigrating to the US, brought his father’s influence with him. The same detail and the same turbulent scenes created a swell of interest in the American market, and ensured that Buttersworth’s legacy stretched beyond Britain’s shores to distant tides.


Born on the Isle of Wight, Britain.


Enlisted in the Royal Navy.


Appointed a Master-at-Arms.


Appointed a Midshipman.


Exhibited at the Royal Academy.


Exhibited at the British Institution.


Exhibited at the Suffolk Street Galleries.


Died in London, Britain.

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