Races between clippers, such as the competitions to bring the new season’s cargo of tea from China to London, caused much excitement in the 19th century, with wagers, announcements in the press, and a hero’s welcome for the winning captain. The present painting depicts an informal race across the Atlantic between the clippers Lightning and Red Jacket which took place in 1854. Lightning sailed from Boston for Liverpool on 18th February, while Red Jacket sailed from New York the following day. The two ships arrived in Liverpool on 4th March, Red Jacket making better time by eighteen hours. Dawson shows the two ships in mid-Atlantic, cracking on with all sails set in a heavy swell, Lightning in the foreground flying the flag of the Black Ball Line. The low viewpoint and richly-impasted, deep green sea, adds to the sense of drama and peril.
Lightning was built by the legendary Donald McKay, arguably the finest clipper designer of the nineteenth century, for James Baines of Black Ball Line, Liverpool. Launched in 1854, during the Australian gold rush, she was intended to be both speedy and stable, able to withstand the huge seas and storms of the Australia run. Lightning cost £30,000 to build and Baines lavished a further £2,000 on interior decoration, with staterooms of exotic wood, marble, gilding and stained glass. She could reach speeds of nearly twenty knots. In 1854-55, Lightning made the passage from Melbourne to Liverpool in sixty-five days. In 1869, loaded with a cargo of wool and copper, she caught fire at Geelong in Australia and was scuttled in Corio Bay.
Red Jacket was 2,305 tons to Lightning’s 2,084. She was designed by Samuel Hartt Pook and built by George Thomas in Rockland, Maine. Launched in 1853, she was named after the Seneca Indian chief Sagoyewatha, named ‘Red Jacket’ by settlers. She set a record for an Atlantic crossing by making the journey from New York to Liverpool in thirteen days, 1 hour, twenty-five minutes. In 1854 Red Jacket was bought by Pilkington & Wilcox of Liverpool and chartered by the White Star Line for a run to Melbourne, making the journey in sixty-nine days. Red Jacket served the Australian immigrant trade until 1867, and ended her days in 1885 as a coaling hulk in Madeira.