ON CANVAS Ca 1863
Attributed to Thomas H. Willis (1850-1925)
oil on canvas on board 19 th Century, Ca 1883 to 1887
L x 18″ H
Framed 37″ x 25″ x 1 1/2″ D
Weight 14 pounds
an embroidery of the American racing schooner GRAYLING. The schooner was designed by Philip
R. Ellsworth and built at Brooklyn’s Richard & Cornelius Poillon Shipyard in 1883, for the ardent yachtsman
and club commodore, Latham Avery Fish. As a point of pride, in 2008, we sold an original oil on canvas
painting of “GRAYLING” in the lead in the Goelet Schooner Race
of 1884 or 1886 which she won in both years. See https://landandseacollection.com/id441.html GRAYLING, designed
by Ellsworth for Fish, Commodore of the Atlantic Yacht Club, was 91 feet long with a beam of 23 feet and only drew
5 feet with her centerboard in the raised position. Later she unsuccessfully competed in the America’s Cup Eliminations
Photo taken without the
frame and glass The line appearing to hang down is the dolphin striker.
This work, even though unsigned, with its extremely
fine attention to the details of the ship, is clearly the work of Thomas H. Willis, the recognized master of using
silk thread, satin and embroidery on painted canvas, to portray all types of vessels, or someone
schooled by him. In this work, the gaff headed racing schooner is of a type that was popular in the last quarter
of the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century. Philip Elsworth designed three similar schooners of this general type.
They were Fortuna, Grayling and Norseman, all built at the Poillon Shipyard. Here Grayling is flying the Thirteen star ensign
with fouled anchor from her main gaff which was popular with yachtsmen, and the burgee of the Atlantic
Yacht Club from her fore truck and the owner’s personal pennant from the main truck. The top painting is shown with its
frame and under glass and the lower picture is without the glass, but with the gold fillet around it. The glass is original
with a few small bubbles and ripples.
THE ARTIST: There is little information available about the
master of this technique which is surprising since he is well known in the art world. Thomas Willis was born in Connecticut
in 1850, and as an adult, he moved to New York City. His early days there were spent in working for a silk thread manufacturer
which must have influenced his choice of mediums. As far as is known, he was a self trained artist who had a love of sailing
vessels and the sea, and experimented in the use of thread and fabric in portraying them. His scenic backgrounds were painted,
and he was skilled in the use of a brush which added a pleasing contrast to the silk work. In 1880, he decided to spend
full time as an artist and began to portray well-known New York area yachts using his distinctive silk technique. He advertised
in local papers as the sole maker and creator of “silk ware” pictures by creating ship portraits using fabric hulls, silk
and satin sails with painted backgrounds and embroidered details. Many feel that Willis’s superb handling of this
specialized technique made his paintings indistinguishable from more traditional mediums.
As his reputation grew, he counted many of the members of the prestigious New York Yacht
Club as his clients and the images of their yachts have become a lasting memory of the Golden Days of Yachting during the
Turn of the 20th Century. He died in New York in 1925.
His works are now in the Mariner’s Museum, the Mystic Seaport Museum and the Peabody Museum, and
many of the finest private collections of Americana, and his name appears in various registries of American artists. His signature
was a “T” over a “W” and many of his works were known as unsigned.
Embroidered gold scroll
work on the bow
Crew members in the cockpit
Ship’s boat secured to
13 Star Yacht Ensign
at main gaff
From the bow showing three
dimensional quality of the workmanship
Willis had the ability to capture the image of ships and yachts using mostly
silk thread and embroidery techniques as others would use paint. His work is startlingly realistic as is this one.
background is oil on canvas which appears to have been mounted on board. The hull of the yacht is black satin. The sails appear
to be silk or satin fabric. The rigging is silk thread, and the detailing such as rubbing strakes, American flag, burgees, and
figures is embroidered in heavy thread. The panels of the sails are drawn in pencil.
painting is very old but in fine condition. There are a couple of broken threads and some minor stains on the sails
which are mentioned only for thoroughness and are not distracting. The wood frame has all the signs
of being original with a well worn name plaque, and weighs 14 pounds. It has a gold fillet which is mounted
around the painting and which acts as an inner frame.
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