A larger (25 x 35½in.) canvas of the Swan and Isabella engaged in the Northern or Davis Strait whale fishery by Ward was presented to Hull Trinity House in 1898 (for which see the exhibition catalogue John Ward of Hull Marine Painter 1798-1849, The Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 1981, p.61, no.46 'This canvas is the best of several versions of the subject. It is almost certainly the piece exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840'). There is a closely similar version of the present picture in the Kendall Whaling Museum, Massachusetts locating the scene to Baffin Bay (E.H.H. Archibald, Dictionary of sea painters, Woodbridge, 1980, pl.368), and variants include the smaller canvas (13 x 20in.) in the Hull Maritime Museum (1981, p.62, no.47) and the similar composition (14 x 21¼in.) to the latter from the Bute Collection, Christie's, 3 July, 1996, lot 125 (paired with 'Whalers of the South Seas Fishery').
The present picture, previously unknown, might arguably also be a contender for Ward's 1840 R.A. exhibit of the same subject ['Northern Whale Fishery; the Swan and Isabella', no. 145]. It appears to be one of Ward's most beautifully finished pictures, and, uniquely in Ward's whaling subjects, pushes the human action to the middleground. The foreground is filled, not with the harpooning of a whale, but with the peaceable kingdom of Arctic wildlife: amongst the flocks of seabirds, some of the other prey of the fishery at one time or other: three seals lie on the ice floe in the centre, a polar bear and cub are at the ice-edge to the right, two narwhals (Baffin's 'Sea Unicorne') surface and blow and beyond these, two walrus -- the 'Monsters of the Sea' who 'lye like Hogges upon heapes' (Purchas) -- sit on the ice, oblivious to the approach of an armed sailor. The primary activities of the fishery are partly submerged in the middleground where harpooned whales are seen being towed to the left of the Swan, a whale hunted by a whaleboat dives to the left of the Isabella and two whales blow to the right of the ship; another seven or more ships of the fishery lie beyond amongst the icebergs and to the horizon.
The Swan was originally a 16-gun Royal Naval sloop, built at Plymouth in 1767. She was sold out of service after involvement in the Nore Mutiny and acquired for the whale fishery by Samuel Cooper of Tranby, a merchant, and Willian Spyvee Cooper of Sculcoates, in 1815. She entered the Hull whaling fleet in 1824 and sailed continuously under the command of Captain Dring until going to the breakers in 1840. She made her own famous return to the Humber in July 1837 after being beset in Davis Strait with five other whalers in 1836-37, the arrival announced by a local broadsheet: 'ARRIVAL OF The Swan From Davis' Straits. 25 Lives Lost. ... No words can well describe the privations and sufferings to which the men have been exposed ... The wife of one of the men belonging the Swan, who anticipated that her beloved husband would not again present himself before her, was on the Sunday last united in the bonds of holy matrimony to her love-stricken swain. On Monday, on hearing of the arrival of the vessel, and the safety of her first husband, she made a precipitate retreat into the country, where for aught we know, she yet remains.' Her white bird figurehead, clearly visible in Ward's picture, recalls her Royal Naval origins.
The Isabella was a 382-ton whaler built in Beverley for her part owner, Captain Heselwood of Hull. Launched in 1813, she was hired in 1818 by the Admiralty, one of four ships chosen to open the campaign in search of a Northwest Passage via Baffin's Bay -- the first in a series of voyages in search of the passage led by the British navy which would culminate in Franklin's ill-fated expedition of 1845. Outfitted and strengthened for the ice at the Royal Navy yard at Deptford, she was selected by Ross as his flagship. Ross and Parry took the Isabella and her consort the Alexander up the west coast of Greenland (Buchan and Franklin took the Dorothea and Trent up the east coast), sailed through Davis Strait into Baffin Bay, and headed up Lancaster Sound where Ross famously saw the passage blocked by a chain of mountains. The Isabella was returned to her owners after her service with Ross and traded between Canadian ports and Hull into the early 1820s. Sold by her first owner William Moxon to Thomas Carlill in 1824, by 1825 she was whaling again in the Arctic and enjoying profitable seasons under the command of Richard Wallis Humphrey of Hull. By an extraordinary coincidence, it was the Isabella which rescued Ross and his marooned party in Lancaster Sound in 1833. Ross, on a privately sponsored voyage which sailed in June 1829, had by then spent four winters in the Arctic. He had abandoned his frozen-in ship, the paddlewheel steamer Victory, at 'Victory Harbour' and made north in three boats with his surviving crew to Lancaster Sound, where, on 26 August, Ross and his crew 'got safely on board the ship, which is the same Isabella which I commanded in 1818', to be 'recd by her comr Mr Humphreys (sic) with many marks of kindness and hospitality and our famished frames have already nearly recovered all they had lost.' (Ross to Viscount Melville 'On board the Isabella of Hull, Baffin's Bay', 20 September 1833). The Isabella returned Ross to a hero's welcome in Hull on 18 October. The painted silhouette of Ross inserted in Markham's book which accompanies the picture was, according to the inscription on its reverse, taken at the luncheon at the Vittoria Hotel, one of a series of festivities in Hull which marked his return. Captain Humphreys was similarly fêted with a dinner at the same hotel the following July, and presented with a silver cup engraved with a scene representing the Isabella's boats rescuing the crew of the Victory from 'their perilous situation in the Arctic regions...'. The Isabella's career came to an end on 12 May 1835 when, under the command of Captain Robert Carlill, she was lost in thick weather off the Whale Fish Islands, one of five Hull whalers lost that year.
Hull's involvement in the whaling industry dates back to the 16th century when whalebone and whale oil was imported into the port. In 1577 Queen Elizabeth I granted the Muscovy Company a 20-year monopoly for 'the killing of whales within any seas whatsoever', but British whaling in reality had to compete with the Basques, who had hunted the great north whale or nordkaper from Biscay to Labrador, from the 1530s, and the Dutch, who began to hunt on the Arctic coast of Russia and on the east coast of Greenland in the late 16th century. The Company's first whale was killed in Spitsbergen waters in 1611, along with 500 walrus. Both whalers were lost but the cargo was rescued and taken to Hull where the train oil raised £5 per ton. The British, Dutch, French and Danish-Norwegians competed for mastery of the whaling grounds, which moved from Spitsbergen to Jan Mayen, itself then a disputed island. King James I granted sole right to its whale fishery to the corporation of Hull in 1617-18. The Dutch, who had formed their own Northern Company under a charter from the States General, similarly granted its members sole right to trade and hunt whales on all coasts between Novaya Zemlya and Davis Strait, and it was the Dutch who dominated the trade through the 17th century and who would open a new fishery west of Greenland in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in the 1720s. With the fishing out of the Atlantic Northern Right whale, the newly established British Greenland fishery similarly hunted the Arctic bowhead from the mid-18th century, competing with Dutch and German whalers west of Greenland.
The wars with revolutionary France (and the subsequent blockade of continental ports by the British) suppressed continental whaling in the late 18th century, allowing the British to gain ground as industrialisation increased demand for whaling products. Whaling fleets sailed out of London, Liverpool, Whitby, Hull, Dundee and Peterhead. Hull became the premier whaling port, sending 481 fleets out between 1810 and 1818, and the hunting grounds extended to the west coast of Baffin Bay after 1820. The British whaling boom lasted into the 1830s, and Ward's picture was painted at and marks its zenith. The population of whales endemic to the Arctic (the bowhead or Greenland whale, Balaena myticetus) would be all but exterminated by 1900.
John Ward's life is little documented. The son of a master mariner, he was born in Hull and probably served as an apprentice to the artist Thomas Meggitt from around 1812, learning the trade of a house, ship and sign painter. Amongst his earliest signed works is a canvas dated 1823 of the whaler Brunswick, commissioned by William Blyth to commemorate a successful whaling season in the Arctic fishery. A 'Seapiece' was accepted by the Royal Academy in 1831, and his second exhibit 'Northern Whale Fishery; the Swan and Isabella' followed in 1840 -- he exhibited 9 further pictures at the Royal Academy in 1841-43 and in 1847 and exhibited 11 pictures at The British Institution and The Royal Society of British Artists between 1841 and 1847, all shipping subjects. He announced his retirement as a 'House and Ship Painter' in 1843, advertising that he would teach 'marine drawing as applicable to marine painting' and continue with ship portraiture. A freemason and member of the Humber Lodge, he had enjoyed the patronage of Hull's ship owners and merchants and was mourned by them on his death in 1849, aged fifty, from the Asiatic cholera that swept through Hull: 'No man enjoyed the confidence of the members more than Bro. John Ward. His character was marked by honesty of purpose and strict integrity of principle. ... The Humber Lodge will regard his loss as the falling down of one of her strong pillars, and will lament as for the loss of one of her brightest ornaments.' The contents of his studio were finally sold in 1853 by Messrs Oates, Son and Capes on behalf of his executors, although many of his studies and sketches were thought to have been retained by his assistant, William Frederick Settle. For Arthur Credland's survey of Ward's life and work, see the exhibition catalogue John Ward of Hull Marine Painter 1798-1849, The Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 1981, and his biographical sketch in Marine Painting in Hull: Through Three Centuries, Beverley, 1993, pp.56-77.