The city of Hull, an important British port for commercial and fishing fleets, was a center for whaling until the middle of the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it attracted a number of accomplished marine painters. John Ward, one of the finest of these artists, enjoyed wide patronage from ship owners and merchants and produced numerous ship portraits and harbor views. His most original and striking works are whaling scenes he painted from the early 1820s to the early 1840s. He began exhibiting such works at the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and the Royal Society of British Artists in London in the 1830s, bringing him recognition beyond his hometown.
The Northern Whale Fishery: The "Swan" and "Isabella" was unknown to modern scholarship on Ward until its appearance at auction in September 2006. Several other similar paintings of the Swan and the Isabella are extant, each with variations in the placement of the ships, the details of human activity, and the variety of marine animals shown. The Gallery's newly acquired picture is among the most beautifully painted of all Ward's creations. The two principal ships are painstakingly rendered to capture exact details of rigging and overall form, while other vessels are depicted in the distance. Ice floes drift on the sea, and icebergs loom in the background. The scene is filled with activities associated with whaling: strips of whale flesh are loaded on the Swan at the left; a long boat tows a dead whale in the middle distance; and a boat pursues a sounding whale near the Isabella at the right. Most remarkable is the array of wildlife present, including three seals and pairs of polar bears, walruses, and narwhales; seagulls skim the water and ice, searching for, and in some cases finding, morsels of blubber.
The Gallery's collection has only a few marine pictures by British artists and none depicting an Arctic scene. The Northern Whale Fishery: The "Swan" and "Isabella," with its charming and appealing subject and the exceptionally fine aesthetic level of its realization, is thus an important and welcome addition.