Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Behind Christmas 1885

This week I featured a print of a painting entitled “Christmas Morning 1885”.  At first glance, it would appear to have very little to do with Christmas: no snow, no fir trees, no coloured lights or ornaments, no Nativity scene, nothing that we would associate with Christmas. So why the title?

Jordan O’Brien approached me with an interesting commission: to paint the event experienced by an ancestor in 1885, Captain Thomas Russell O’Brien, of Pictou, Nova Scotia: a harrowing experience in a cyclone in the Indian Ocean in 1885.  Jordan had a photograph of a painting of his barque, the William H. McNeil, registered in Pictou.  He also had Captain O’Brien’s ship’s log.

I read through the log and the most vividly described entry was on the morning of December 25, Christmas morning.  All vital information was well documented: the wind direction, time, ship’s heading, and general sea and weather conditions.  This gave me a good idea of how the light should be in the painting, the direction of the waves and the heading of the ship in relation to these.  I wanted to capture the power of cyclone sea conditions: the high winds blow the tops off the heavy seas and throw windblown spray across the waves.  The sea is a wild place in a cyclone.

Captain O’Brien meticulously documented which sails his crew were able to furl before facing the worst of the wind, and which sails were blown to tatters in the cyclone.  These details I recorded in the painting of the ship’s rigging.

Certainly, the deck of the William H. McNeill would have been a wild place in that Indian Ocean cyclone, drenched with windblown spray, the storm force wind screaming through the rigging, the creaking and straining of the wooden hull inaudible in the roar of the sea.

As I painted the picture, thinking about the entries made in the log, I found myself wondering about the captain and crew, their thoughts on the Christmas morning, as they longed for the warmth and comfort of their snug homes half a world away, as they thought about Christmas and wondered how their wives and children and relatives were all doing.  Certainly Christmas at sea could never be like Christmas in your own home, especially in a cyclone in the Indian Ocean.

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