Research Notes / Notes de recherche

The Flight to Marseille

Robert S. Elliot
New Brunswick Museum

1 In the autumn of 1866, a small British-registered sailing vessel made its way towards the Mediterranean port of Marseille. For two and a half millennia tens of thousands of merchant vessels had frequented this port's natural harbour on the southern coast of France. Founded by Greek colonists from Phocaea about 600 B.C. and known to the Romans as Massilia, Marseille was a major port during the nineteenth century and a common destination for vessels from Mediterranean centres and beyond.

Fig. 1. The brigantine Flight watercolour on paper, by Honore Pellegrin (1793-1869), unsigned, 60.0 cm x 44.5 cm.
Thumbnail of Figure 1Display large image of Figure 1
(Collection: New Brunswick Museum access, no. 987.22)

2 Reaching the rendezvous point, the vessel's master ordered his crew to reduce canvas, slowing the merchantman's progress. Aloft the pilot jack signalled for the assistance of a pilot. Shortly thereafter, a small pilot boat came alongside and a pilot boarded the brigantine Flight. Its duty completed, the pilot boat departed for another rendezvous at sea.

3 The skilled local pilot guided the 248-ton vessel safely through the approaches into the bustling harbour of Marseille. Although she was of respectable size, the brigantine Flight was dwarfed by much larger square-riggers discharging cargo; a few modern steamships would also have been present. Except for the ship's crew due for shore leave and probably local merchants awaiting cargo, the arrival of the Flight passed unnoticed. Yet a visual reminder of that particular occasion has survived.

4 Throughout the nineteenth century, sailing vessels owned by New Brunswick firms made passages to distant ports, like Marseille, and it became common practice for a vessel's captain, owner or builder to commission a ship portrait. Such an example of documentary art has survived to commemorate the arrival of the brigantine Flight on 14 November 1866, and for the maritime historian such a portrait can provide historical information not available from other contemporary written sources.

5 This portrait (fig. 1) shows the Flight under full sail prior to the reduction of canvas. Besides a full complement of sails on the vessel's fore and main masts, the Flight is shown with three headsails plus three stay-sails deployed between the masts. We can see that this brigantine had a long poopdeck which extended beyond the main mast and that the vessel retained studding sail booms on its mainmast yards. The Red Ensign at the spanker gaff proclaims that this was a British-registered vessel, while the diamond "T" houseflag shows that the Saint John company of Jacob Valentine Troop was the owner. One suspects that the small boat approaching the Flight's bow was meant to represent a Marseille pilot boat answering the British pilot jack (a Union Jack with a white border) flown by the Flight. Not only has the artist included numerous pieces of visual information which allow us to "see" the long-gone Flight, but he has inscribed the following notation along the bottom of his work: "Flight of St. John N.B. James Hayes Commander, in the bay of Marseilles. November 14th 1866."

6 Although this portrait of the Flight is unsigned, its form and style confirm that the Marseille artist Honoré Pellegrin (1793-1869) was the painter. Pellegrin followed a painting style popularized by members of the Roux family, also of Marseille. Working in ink and watercolour on paper and providing a suitable inscription on a band along the portrait's lower edge, this family produced hundreds of similar ship portraits throughout the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Honoré Pellegrin certainly would have seen examples of their work and developed a similar style. Characteristics of Pellegrin's paintings include vivid blue sea, the portrayal of sails showing the aft side of the canvas, and backgrounds that usually show either the entrance to Marseille harbour or the lighthouse in the bay. The lighthouse appears in the portrait of the Flight.

7 Pellegrin may be considered one of the better ship portraitists of the mid-nineteenth century. As examples of documentary art, Pellegrin's paintings are often more useful than those of many of his contemporaries because of his greater precision in the rendering of his vessels. A respectable number of Pellegrin's portraits, painted from the 1820s through the 1860s, have survived, and major institutions such as the Peabody Museum of Salem (Massachusetts), the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, England), le Musée de la Marine (Paris) and Le Musée de la Marine de Marseille hold important examples. The brigantine Flight joins another unsigned Honoré Pellegrin portrait held by the New Brunswick Museum—the barque Victress, painted ten years earlier in 1856.1

8 While the painting of the Flight provides considerable information concerning this particular vessel, documentary sources help to flesh-out the historical background. This brigantine was constructed at Granville, Nova Scotia, in 1859 and was owned by Jacob V. Troop of Saint John, New Brunswick.2 Copies of the Mercantile Navy List also confirm that a James Hayes was employed as either master or mate during the 1860s.3

9 One might question why a resident of New Brunswick (a province that was producing substantial numbers of sailing vessels during this period) would purchase a Nova Scotian vessel? Once again documentary sources provide a possible answer: contracts for the construction of merchantmen were often let to one's relatives or close associates. Jacob Valentine Troop had been born in Upper Granville in 1808 and naturally established contacts prior to relocating in Saint John in 1840 with his family.4 He would have been familiar with the quality of craftsmanship in the Granville area and possibly been able to acquire a more attractive purchase price from his old acquaintances. However, Jacob, being a shrewd businessman and founder of the Troop sailing fleet, also took advantage of opportunities closer to home, since other Troop vessels were purchased from builders in the Saint John area.

10 The New Brunswick Museum is fortunate to have the largest ship portrait collection in Canada—documentation of the province's once thriving maritime activities. The recent acquisition of the brigantine Flight adds to this significant collection. Not only does it add a second Honoré Pellegrin portrait to the Museum's holdings, but it provides another illustration of one of the smaller vessel rigs produced in the province. Brigantines are especially underrepresented, with only two others at the Museum.

11 On 1 May 1988 the public will have the opportunity to view the portrait of the Flight in the bay of Marseille, when it is included in the New Brunswick Museum's exhibition presentation of "Reflections of an Era: Portraits of 19th Century New Brunswick Ships."

1 Robert S. Elliot and Alan D. McNairn, Reflections of an Era: Portraits of 19th Century New Brunswick Ships I Reflets d'une époque: Portraits de navires du Nouveau-Brunswick au XIX' siècle (Saint John: New Brunswick Museum, 1987), cat. no. 13.
2 William Smith, comp., An Alphabetical List of All the Shipping Registered at Saint John, N.B. on the 1st of January 1867 (Saint John: William M. Wright, 1867), p. 20.
3 The Mercantile Navy List (London: 1861 and 1863).
4 Charles A. Armour and Thomas Lackey, Sailing Ships of the Maritimes (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1975), p. 110. Esther Clark Wright, Saint John Ships and Their Builders (Wolfville, N.S.: the author, 1976), pp. 26-27.