A fine mid-19th-century oil on panel depicting Marsden Rock in Tyne and Wear, England, by landscape painter, George Balmer (c. 1806-1846).
It’s an atmospheric little painting that captures the popular tourist spot under a full moon and cloudy sky. This was probably a deliberate attempt by Balmer to convey a sense of intrigue - as the Rock has a rich and mysterious history.
During the 18th-century, Marsden Rock was a popular haunt for smugglers as the caves provided ample opportunities to stash away all manner of contraband. Several lost their lives here, either battered by rough waters or overcome by the treacherous climb. Legend has it that another met his demise after hitting a soldier who he believed to be a customs officer. The two met while drinking in Marsden Grotto - a pub carved into the cliff face. After landing his punch, he took off along the beach but the soldier raised his musket and shot him in the neck.
Upon witnessing the incident, the landlord emptied the man’s tankard and nailed it straight into the rock - proclaiming “This tankard is cursed. Let no man drink from it otherwise evil will befall them too!” The tankard remained in place for many years and was occasionally filled at night to appease the ghost of the smuggler.
George Balmer was born in North Shields and would’ve known this location well. He enjoyed his local surroundings and often painted fine views along the coastline. His father was a house painter and George initially took up the family trade. However, his talent for art pulled him in another direction - as explained so eloquently by his friend, John Wykeham Archer (1808-1864).
“...he was originally intended to carry on the business of his father, a respectable house-painter in North Shields. However, his earliest predilections were such as disqualified him for mechanical pursuits.”
Balmer was predominantly self-taught but did receive some early tuition from painter John Wilson Ewbank (c.1779-1847). He also undertook various trips to Europe - particularly Holland, Switzerland, and Paris where he spent several months studying the old masters at the Louvre.
However, Balmer was always happiest when working in his local area, as Wykeham Archer explains.
“My old friend was never so much in his element as when painting a stranded ship, an old lighthouse, or the rippling of the waves of a shingly coast.”
The painting is inscribed on the reverse and held within a period gilded frame.
Medium: Oil on panel Overall size: 14” x 12” / 36cm x 31cm Year of creation: c. 1840 Provenance: England Condition: Very presentable. Craquelure but the paint layer is stable. Frame with some age-related wear and losses to the gilding. Artist’s auction highlight: £5,406 achieved for a marine scene at auction in 1999.