My Favourite Painting: Robin Knox-Johnston

Record-breaking yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston chooses a seafaring picture of enormous drama.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on Two Clippers –Nocturne by Montague Dawson

‘This painting conjours up the romance of the last great age of sail, when voyages depended on wind, skill and muscle. The two vessels are shown pressing hard in strong winds and heading close enough to hail each other and pass on their positions before the introduction of radios’

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is a yachtsman. The first person to complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe, he published his autobiography, Running Free, last year.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, who completed a record solo round-the-world race in the Golden Globe Race. He was the first man to sail solo and non-stop around the world in 1968-1969. Credit: John Millar / Country Life

John McEwen analyses Two Clippers

To be a marine artist was in Montague Dawson’s blood. His grandfather, Henry Dawson (1811–78), was best known for marine pictures; his father was a sea captain and yachtsman. In middle age, John Ruskin’s encouragement was all that kept him going, but, after a climactic retrospective, he wrote: ‘My pictures delighted me. I don’t think the work of any landscape painter living or dead could be put in competition with them.’

On leaving school, he worked in London for a commercial art studio until volunteering for the Royal Navy in 1914. It took him to Falmouth, where he found time to have lessons with the marine artist Charles Napier Hemy (1841–1917), a Royal Academician and his principal influence.

At the war’s end, he witnessed the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow and illustrated the event for The Sphere. He made his reputation between the World Wars and was an official war artist in the Second World War.

Dawson specialised in the great age of sail, which, like that of the stagecoach, was surprisingly short. Clippers were very fast sailing ships in the mid 19th century. Square-rigged, most commonly with three masts, they delivered limited bulk freight globally until replaced by steam ships. Their boom years were fuelled by the demand for tea from China and gold from California and Australia.

This picture displays Dawson’s pride in accuracy. The pitch of the foreground ship emphasises the narrowness of the deck, the three figures her scale, the lookout in the prow straining towards the dimly discernible lights in the sister ship. This atmospheric nocturne made £200,000 at auction in 2017.