Arguably the most illustrious of all the China tea trade clippers, Thermopylae was designed by Bernard Waymouth and built for George Thompson & Co. of London by Walter Hood at Aberdeen in 1868. Registered at 947 tons (net) and measuring 212 feet in length with a 36 foot beam, she was a splendid sea boat, fast in any weather and especially quick when going to windward. Launched on 19th August 1868, she sailed from Gravesend on her maiden voyage to Melbourne on 7th November the same year. Anchoring in Port Phillip, Australia, after a record run of 60 days (pilot to pilot), she went straight on to Newcastle, New South Wales, to load cargo for Shanghai. Crossing the Pacific in another record passage of 28 days, she then proceeded to Foochow to load tea. In the race home, she narrowly missed setting the record time for the year and this first voyage set the standard for her entire career. Continuing to make extremely fast passages throughout the 1870s, she loaded her final tea cargo at Foochow in 1881 before being transferred into the Australian wool trade where, during the 1880s, she frequently paced her old tea-trade rival Cutty Sark from Sydney to London, via Cape Horn. Her best passage was 76 days in 1882 although Cutty Sark, which revelled in the stronger winds of the southern hemisphere, was generally quicker.
In 1890 the justly famous Thermopylae was sold to Canadian owners for 5000 and, from 1892-1895, was employed in the trans-Pacific trade. In 1896 she was resold to the Portuguese Government, renamed Pedro Nunes and put to work as a cadet training ship. Her condition deteriorated steadily however and, by 1907, her working life was over. On 13th October that year, she was towed out of the Tagus into the open sea, offered as a target and sunk by naval gunfire; it was a sad end for such a thoroughbred. Considered by many experts to have been the fastest clipper of them all, there were even those who believed her to be the fastest commercial sailing vessel ever launched. Whatever the truth of these claims, she was - and has remained - one of the greatest legends of the age of sail.
This majestic classic is one of at least eight - but each totally different - portraits of this remarkable vessel executed by Montague Dawson during his long career.