Posted on 19 Comments

The Wreck of the Helvetia, Rhossili

The Wreck of the Helvetia

Rhossili Bay is a vast beach. The beach is 3 miles long. Photos do not do it justice.

Rhossili Bay
The 3-mile Rhossili Beach (tide out) 

A number of landsmarks are frequently photographed (and painted) along this great expanse – Worms Head the tidal island that stretches along at the Southern end of the bay, the old rectory that looks out from the middle of the shelf above the beach and in the midst of the sand, the Wreck of the Heletiva.  If you look very closely at the photo above you might just be able to make it out.

Need help? It’s the group of shark-like fins that  are poking out of an impossibly small pool in the midst of the sand. The Helvetia sank into the sand over 130 years ago and only her stubs of her wood ribs remain.

From on top of the Rhossili cliffs, it looks tiny. I have only been down onto the beach to visit it once. It’s usually surrounded by people photographing it.

A quick online search will turn up many, many images of this wreck close up; some with shadows, others with reflections, lots with beautiful sunsets, and a few stunners with starry skies. I don’t know how they arrange it when more than one photographer wants to take a photo at sunset?

Selection of photographs of the Wreck of the Helvetia found online
Selection of photographs of the Wreck of the Helvetia found online

She is surprisingly small.  These remains must be just the “nose” of her bow.  I am very taken with how organic she is. She is made of greenish rotting wood. Presumably being underwater for long parts of the day means that she is only rotting very slowly.  Up close, the rotted bow looks dragon-like. The iron nails that protrude from the wood are like the teeth of the beast. The rust from the iron colours the wood orangey-red.  Red and green, the colours of Wales.

Wreck of the Helvetia (detail)
Wreck of the Helvetia (detail)

I wanted to find out more about this ship. What did she look like before she sank? Did anyone die? Why was she called Helvetia?

I discovered that The Helvetia had been a Norwegian barque, which is a kind of sailing ship. She had been built in 1855 and registered at the port of Bremerhaven (in modern-day Germany).  She had sailed from New Brunswick, on the East coast of Canada in late October 1887. Although the sea around the Gower coast seems tame in comparison with the wild North Atlantic off Donegal, the coastline has seen the demise of many ships over the centuries. The Helvetia was caught in bad weather and hit the dangerous sandbank of Helwick Sands. She was then swept around Worm’s Head and into Rhossili Bay. Her captain decided to drop anchor but the galeforce wind meant her anchor was ripped free from the sand and she was wrecked on the sands of Rhossili beach. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

Three-masted barque
Three-masted barque (image from Wikipeda)

During the following weeks, her cargo of timber was collected from the beach and gathered for auction sale. The wreck itself was sold to a local man, who intended to strip the precious copper keel from the vessel but before he got the chance, the Helvetia sank into the sand. Local legend says that he had to settle for salvaging the ship’s deck boards!

I tried to find a photo of the Helvetia before she sank and I discovered that there are many ships that have born that name in the past and in also in the present day. Here are some examples.

Helvetia is a popular name for ships
Helvetia is a popular name for ships

This got me wondering why Helvetia was such a popular name for ships. What did it mean anyway? So I did a bit of research and found out that Helvetia was the personification of Switzerland, like Britannia, is for Britain, Marianne for the French Republic, or Erin is for Ireland. So why were Norwegians naming their ship Helvetia? It seems I was totally on the wrong track here.

I did some research and I found that Hel is also an Old Norse word. It has several meaning. It could mean “Hel” who in Norse mythology was a goddess who ruled the underworld, Helheim, or Hel. Hel-Víti thus means “Hell-torment”. That would be a great name for a Viking ship, I think. Hel, however, also means luck which is possibly a better name for a ship, especially as sailors are incredibly superstitious people. If you made your living on the changeable sea you’d be very superstitious too. On a tangent, it was apparently customary among Vikings to say “hell og lykke” (luck and happiness) when they met. This is supposedly were English speakers get the greeting “hello” from.

Anyway, I had assumed that there was a rule that only one ship at a time could bear a particular name – like the Ark Royal, but it could be reused again and again. No so. There were many other ships in the C19th with the name Helvetia – more than one of these ships were passenger ships that took people who wanted to emigrate to the USA, another Norwegian ship, SS Helvetia spent much of the 1870s & 1880 steaming across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York.  Conditions must have been poor as there was a cholera outbreak on one of these voyages in 1866 and the ship was forced to return to Liverpool.

ss helvetia
SS Helvetia

I found another Norwegian ship called Helvetia, operating across the Atlantic in this period. On the “Noway Heritage” website this ship is described as a Bark (Barque) like the Rhossili ship. This ship was also built in Bremerhaven, but in 1858 not 1855, and was wrecked in 1888, not 1887. I don’t know if this is the same ship as the Rhossili wreck. Quite possibly. There is an online passenger list for the Bark Helvetia from her 1861 voyage from Germany to New York here, and you can see the names of the framers and skilled-labourers who were looking for a new life in the United States.   According to the “Norway Heritage” website, the Bark Helvetia also sailed to Quebec, in Canada, on a regular basis.  She also sailed to Swansea twice in 1866. This Canadian link makes me think that it is the same ship. She regularly sailed from Norway taking hundreds of passengers presumably looking for a new life in Canada in the 1860s (you can see the passenger list here). Incredibly, between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to North America—that’s about one-third of Norway’s population! Most of them immigrated to the US, and lesser numbers immigrating to Canada.  Hunger and poverty pushed them to leave their homes. The voyage must have been grim beyond belief. In 1861 a ship called the Helvetia, possibly not the Rhossili ship,  is recorded as carrying 344 passengers in steerage from Drammen (Haagensen) but by the time they arrived in Canada, there had been five deaths. Looking at the other ships that arrived in Canada in that summer, smallpox, and measles were also rife on board the crowded ships. Deaths were not uncommon.

Later on in the 1870s the Helvetia sailed from London and then Truro, in Cornwall. I am guessing that she took English passengers to North America and brought timber back to Europe. This intrigued me. Distant relatives of mine left Scotland in the 1860s and started a new life in the States, setting up a successful business selling furs in snowy Des Moines, Iowa. Perhaps they traveled on a ship like the Helvetia? Interestingly, many Norwegians settled in Iowa too.

For a sea-faring nation, Britain has preserved precious few sailing ships from the past. The Helvetia (and her many namesakes) deserves to be remembered as one of the thousands of ships that played a role in the mass migration of peoples from Western Europe to North America in the 19th century. She may have met her end on in the sands of a Welsh beach, but she had been a workhorse of the North Atlantic and it was very fortunate that her final cargo was timber and not people. It seems very fitting that this Scandinavian ship lies on the sands of Rhossili Bay. As behind her off to in the distance another dragon, the Wurm, or  Worms Head stretches across the horizon.  Wurm is a Viking word. It means “dragon”.

Oil painting of Rhossili Bay with the wreck of the Helvetia

The Wreck Of The Helvetia, Rhossili, Gower

Read more about the Helvetia

https://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/273914/details/helvetia

http://www.gowershipwrecks.co.uk/2009/11/gower-shipwreck-helvetia.html

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/story-behind-helvetia-rhossili-beach-14968494

also

Norwegians and USA

My Walk Along Worms Head 

Posted on 16 Comments

The pleasures and frustration of panoramic paintings

Who hasn’t attempted to create a photographic panorama? Back in the 1990s when cameras contained stuff called film, I remember often standing looking at some amazing view, and then slowly pivoting from left to right (and then right to left in case I’d missed something) taking a series of overlapping photographs.  The hope was that I would recreate a some stunning vista; such as the Grand Canyon, the London skyline, or even the lovely Alhambra. After a long wait, the photos would come back from the developers and I’d dutifully stick them together. The results were usually underwhelming.  Rather wonky. If, you tried really hard you could sum up the awe of the view that had inspired you, sort of. I don’t think the sticky tape added to the overall impact, either. I give you in evidence the example below which I found lurking in one of our crowded cupboards:-

IMG_2524.jpg

Oh dear. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed by their efforts to capture their holiday vistas in this way as companies like Kodac developed special disposable panoramic cameras so you did not have to tape your photos together. I will never know if they were any good because I never had one.

0528100011.jpg

So, forgive me if I have pretty much spurned panoramic compositions until now. In fact, I have had a long phase where I chose portrait orientation for my landscape compositions whether rural or urban. I really liked the sense of piles of houses on houses, or field upon fields. It works well in hilly Swansea and mountainous Wales.

It’s not like I never tried narrow canvases. I did use a couple of small narrow canvases to paint Mumbles, the village at the end of Swansea Bay. The paintings turned out well but I didn’t really enjoy the experience. I didn’t really ask myself why  not until now. I think  it was partly because I was in a portrait orientation “groove” and partly it was because the canvases were too small, they felt mean and didn’t really convey the essence of Mumbles.

It was a client who got me using panoramic canvases again. He wanted a landscape painting of May Hill in Gloucestershire. We originally discussed using a 80x60cm canvas but then he decided he wanted a narrower canvas; 80×40 cm. This was inspired. This immediately improved the composition because instead of the landscape getting lost against too much sky, it actually balanced the composition. It gave the land in the painting more immediacy and intimacy.

IMG_8419
Full size source photo
IMG_2115
May Hill 80x40cm

Now, you might say that this is not particularly “panoramic” but it got me thinking. Narrower canvases would suit coastal paintings because too much sky often has the effect of “shrinking” the land/coast in a composition. I’ll give you a photographic example:-

So using a long narrow canvas works really well with compositions for certain scenes, such as the one of Worms Head I have shown above.

All good so far, but what about the frustrations? There are the logistical issues surrounding using longer canvases. It may sound daft, but they are long. I find it hard to store them in my small attic studio. They poke out. When it comes to painting, I found that painting of the far left or right of the canvas quite a challenge. You see, I don’t usually bother with using the clamp at the top of my easel when I am painting as I often like to rotate my paintings and paint a canvas “upside down” or even “sideways up/down”. Oh, no. I have to clamp my painting in place or else it flips away from me when I press on it to paint any part either side of the central part. Rotating the canvas becomes a hassle too. My arms are not quite long enough to adjust the clamp without standing up.

IMG_2513.aJPG
Rhossili Sunset (SOLD)

This may all sound very lazy but once I start painting I get into a groove or “flow” and can barely be bothered to move from my central position other than put my brush on my palette and then onto the canvas. This is why I usually end up drinking lukewarm tea even though it’s in a thermos-style travel mug. It’s very rare that I get up to change the station on my radio. This is how I end up listen to sports programs (even football matches) although I am definitely not a sports fan.

The satisfaction of a well-balanced composition and having less sky to paint is worth it.

Worms Head Rhossili
Worms Head, Rhossili (80x40cm) (SOLD)

Then comes the issue of how to show it on my website and social media. There is no problem uploading the image to artfinder.com – it comes up as a complete image on my page.

Artfinder Page
My Artfinder page

However, when I uploaded it to my website the thumbnail cropped the image (see below left).

Panoramic.JPG

So, I have to go on canva.com and create a new version of the image. I paste the image on a white background so the image will viewed whole. Thus:-

Panoramic V2.JPG

Finally, Instagram. I have the same issue with Instagram as I do with my own website in that it only shows part of the image so I decide to chop the picture into two halves and upload them separately. Only I do it the wrong way around at first and end up with a back to front image. I make a note (I draw a little diagram in fact) the right side has to uploaded first and the left second.

Instagram
My instagram page as view on my PC

It looks better on my smart phone. But you see the problem, as new images are uploaded it is pushed along the feed and gets split up between the lines of images. I also don’t know if people looking say the left side of the painting will understand that it’s part of a pair. They’ll just think it a painting of a beach and won’t realise that there’s a long mountainous headland to go with it. *sigh*

Never mind, I think that the best way to show off the panoramic paintings is on this blog!

Here’s my most recent and ambitious long landscape painting. If you click on the title you can see a bigger version.

IMG_3214a
Taking the Long View (SOLD)

 

Posted on 13 Comments

Worms Head Gower

Oil painting Worms Head Gower
Kitchen Corner Boat House, Rhossili, Gower (SOLD)

We have lived on the doorstep of the Gower Peninsula for almost 18 years now. It’s small enough (19 miles in length) to make day trips from Swansea possible. As a landscape artist, it has given me inspiration for many Gower landscape and seascape paintings over the years. Yet, there is always some part I come across that I don’t remember having seen before.  It is 70 square miles in area, so that’s a lot of coastline, hills, valleys, woodlands, streams and fields to explore. I have always wanted to walk along the entire length of the coastal path, to see all the “linking sections” that we miss on the day trips. Perhaps, I will do it this summer.

Rhossili is always popular with visitors. It has an incredible view of the 3-mile beach of Rhossili Bay that arcs northward. In the other direction is Worms Head. This curious dragon-like, tidal island snakes off into the sea. I have seen seals on the leeward side of the island. At low-tide, the causeway can be crossed to the island. When we visited the tide was dropping and the causeway was revealing itself minute, by minute. Yet, the surprise for me was the Old Boathouse at Kitchen Corner. Kitchen Corner is a small bay to the right of the path that leads down to the Worm’s Head causeway. The boathouse was built in the 1920s and was up for sale in 2013. Looking at the real estate details, it doesn’t look like the new owners (if it was sold then) have painted the boathouse since! At low tide, the rocks below are exposed. I painted it when the green heaving sea was still at its feet.  I love to capture the deep green that you only see with a summer sky. It’s a distinct colour that is often found off the coast of West Wales, in Pembrokeshire in particular. I use a lot of turquoise and royal blue to try and recreate the tone in my oil painting. There were also fishermen on the ledges opposite the boathouse.

Buy limited edition prints here