The last week in June saw the first gathering of the fabulous J-Class yachts in British waters since the America’s Cup Jubilee in 2001. A fleet of four of these iconic racing machines have just been battling for supremacy in Falmouth Bay. One of these is a 1930‘s original, the others more recently-built replicas. In 2001 there were just three survivors from the golden age of gentleman’s yacht racing, but the sight of them had sparked a resurgence of interest in the class. Now, out of seven possible entrants, there only four at Falmouth. Sadly two of the yachts pulled out, depriving the world of a sight never seen even during the heyday of the 1930’s. And I was deprived of the opportunity to immortalise the sight in a very serious painting.
Hanuman, a replica of Sir Tommy Sopwith’s Endeavour II, was one of the yachts which pulled out of both the Falmouth regatta and its sequel in the Solent a few weeks later. She had been launched a couple of years earlier and I had flown to Newport, Rhode Island, to witness her maiden race. It was suitable that she should be racing against Ranger, the replica of her erstwhile rival. In 1937 Ranger had won, and in Newport Hanuman won by a whisker. An historic moment indeed.
I am very conscious of my enormous privilege in painting historic events such as the Royal Wedding, The Diamond Julbilee Thames Pageant, and more recently a crowded Westminster Hall when Aung Sun Suu Kyi addressed both Houses of Parliament. In the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a great race of J-Class yachts in British waters is a triumphant celebration and a historic moment, even though only one of the yachts – Velsheda – is British built.
The legacy of paintings of great events is that they form a precious permanent record. The Royal Collection, for example, demonstrates this by maintaining an ongoing tradition to commission works of art to mark great events, be they happy or sad. Paintings are not just a visual record of the facts or a pretty picture, but a representation of the spirit and the mood of the time. At best they are a portrait of the subject and through paintings the subject achieves immortality. On the canvas the moment is made legend, the fleeting made permanent and the trivial elevated. The paintbrush achieves what money alone can’t: and J-Class yacht racing is a rich man’s sport, the apogee of power, grace and beauty.
Personally, I salute the owners of the J-Class yachts who raced in Falmouth and who will be racing in the Solent later this month. They are an incredibly beautiful sight, elegant and serene on the one hand, adrenalin pumping on the other. An iconic fleet racing around the Isle of Wight, across the choppy green-grey water of the English Channel – as I imagine it – the sky above scudding with clouds, raking sunlight and the occasional shower, probably. They will be sailing the same course that the original J-Class raced for the 1851 Cup which later became known as the America’s Cup – now that’s an immortal name.
I shall be out there with my drawing machine, preparing for my painting, my contribution to history. I’m just sorry that Hanuman and Endeavour won’t be in the painting, nor Shamrock V or indeed a new British-built J-Class which might have been. But that’s the history book: either you’re in or you’re not.
As I send out this Painting of the Month, I am setting off for Falmouth to my favourite regatta, The Pendennis Cup. The Cup this year boasts 13 great yachts battling it out, Falmouth Bay will be graced by the classics, Mariquita, Eleonora & Mariette, the jewel Mikado, thoroughbreds Tomahawk & Firebrand, plus superyachts Adela, Athos, Bare Necessities, Bequia & Breakaway, Unfurled & Velacarina. This is a fantastic event for owners, crew and spectators alike, and particularly for me!