The Lightning was the first of a very famous quartet of 'extreme' clippers to come out of Donald McKay's innovative and hugely influential yards at East Boston, Massachusetts. Built to the order of James Baines & Co. of Liverpool, for their prestigious as well as highly profitable Black Ball Line of Australian packets, she was launched on 3rd January 1854, just one week before the equally celebrated Red Jacket sailed on her maiden voyage. Registered at 2,083 tons, Lightning's design was unlike any previous large clipper and she measured 243 feet long overall, with a 44 foot beam. Primarily a passenger ship, although she also had ample capacity for cargo, she had berths for about 370 persons in remarkably comfortable accommodation and carried a crew of 87.
Clearing Boston on 18th February 1854, she made an excellent run to Liverpool under the notorious Captain 'Bully' Forbes who then took her out to Melbourne in a splendid 77 days. She returned in an even more impressive 64 days (Port Philip to Liverpool) loaded with £1 million sterling in gold bullion in addition to a full complement of passengers, just beating Red Jacket's time for the round trip by two days. She soon became renowned for these very fast passages, so much so that in 1857 she was one of the clippers chartered by the British government to ferry troops to India following the outbreak of the Mutiny. Returning from Calcutta, she resumed her Australian sailings and remained an extremely popular ship all through the 1860s despite the growing reliability of steam. Tragically, in the early morning of 31st October 1869, having finished loading her cargo of wool at Geelong the previous day, she was found to be ablaze and the fire out of control. In an attempt to save her cargo, she was towed out into Melbourne harbour and scuttled well clear of the dockside. Much of her cargo was ultimately recovered but Lightning herself was beyond saving and she was destroyed shortly afterwards as being a threat to navigation.
This painting is one of several portraits of Lightning executed by Dawson, for details of which see Ramsey, pp. 37-38 & related plates.