‘The Emigrant Ship’, was painted in the 1880s by the Yorkshire artist, Charles Joseph Staniland, and is part of the permanent collection of Bradford Museums and Galleries, and is usually on display at Cartwright Hall, Bradford. It is an oil painting on canvas, measuring 104 x 176 cm, and is popular with visitors to the gallery.
It is full of human interest and depicts the emigration of people from Britain to English speaking countries overseas – particularly America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – with all searching for a better life, and for many, an escape from unemployment or low pay.
However, the main point of interest in the painting are the people who stand at the dock to watch their loved ones go.
There are assembled women, children and one old man – a shepherd waving his crock toward the brow of the ship; a sheepdog leaps up to the older woman next to him. A young girl, possibly a sister, or even daughter of the person departing, points upward, seemingly identifying someone on the ship. An older woman sits clasping her head in her hands, seemingly in a despairing state.
Another woman, with two young children, looks up at the ship. One of the children turns to look in the direction of where the artist is seemingly positioned. This gives a naturalistic sense to the painting – as if the artist was really there, painting the live scene, as witnessed by the child. However, it is likely that the artist would have compiled this work from a collection of sketches made over a period of time in different places, and using models posing in a studio.
A young woman kisses a sailor – it will be months before they will be reunited, assuming a safe passage there and back. Other individual figures stand out: a well-dressed woman stands by herself to the left of centre; a Black woman, hawking carrots, calls out her wares – fresh fruit and vegetables will be on short supply during the voyage; a police officer stands supervising the scene.
All social classes are represented in the picture. All have a story to tell, and the popularity of this style of narrative painting was that it gave full opportunity to the observer to provide one for each character.
But the overall impression from the scene is of expectant excitement on board, mingled with bafflement and sorrow onshore at the loss of loved ones to lands far from England.
The painting was completed in the late 1880s; a time when emigration from England reached a peak. The main ports of embarkation were London, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull. The artist was born in Hull, so it may be that this is such a scene remembered from his time growing up in the city.
Industrialisation had badly affected work opportunities in the countryside, and even in the cities finding well-paid work could be difficult, or promotion slow. Rural workers found it increasingly hard to survive on the low wages paid to them, and emigration offered a promise of finding work on farms in the ‘new’ countries.
The agricultural clothes of the old man, woman and child at the centre of the painting, and the sheepdog, suggests that a young man, probably a son, from a village was leaving in search of work overseas. This was not uncommon. Between 1860-1900, it is estimated that 1.5 million farm workers emigrated from Britain to work on farms overseas – where generally they found a better standard of living, and a less class divided society.
The fashionable clothes of the lone woman in the painting suggests though, that all social classes and professions emigrated. But a man might often go out alone at first to establish a home before calling wives or other younger relatives to join him. However, for older people, for example the woman, head in hands, it was often the last time they would see a son.
The smoke in the background reminds us that the boat and its passengers are also transient and soon gone.
Charles Joseph Staniland (1838-1916) was born in Hull and studied fine art at the Birmingham and at the Royal Academy in London.
He specialised in painting historical subjects in oils and watercolours and was a popular artist of his time, exhibiting his work across England. He made a good living from painting genre and narrative scenes and from his illustrations for popular magazines of the day, including The Illustrated London News and The Graphic. Nautical scenes featured regularly in the range of work he produced.
You might also like to read another ‘Bradford Paintings’ article at Signing the Marriage Register