A respected member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and of the British Society of Poster Designers, Halifax-born Shoesmith served on ships from the age of 16.
A mostly self-taught artist and a former seaman, he travelled the world working for the Royal Mail Line and for Southern Railways. As well as numerous works depicting liners and sailing vessels, he designed and painted large decorative murals on board the Queen Mary. He died in 1939, aged 48.
Shoesmith was well regarded for the knowledgeable descriptions and precision of detail in his works. His talent lay in painting what he knew and saw in front of him with great accuracy and brilliance of colour.
The 'Conway', Liverpool and the 'Mauretania'
New Orleans, Camouflaged Merchant Ships (1918)
Passing Harland & Wolff's, Approaching Donegall Quay (Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert taking George V and Queen Mary to the Opening of Northern Ireland Parliament) (1921)
Ships in a Mediterranean Harbour, probably Algiers (1918)
Kenneth Shoesmith and Madonna of the Atlantic
Training: on the sea and as an artist
Shoesmith trained as a sailor on the HMS Conway, a famous cadet school based in the Mersey, near Birkenhead, between the ages of 16 and 18.
During his time on the Conway, he was already a competent and keen artist. Although mostly self-taught, he had followed a correspondence course since around 1902.
Seven albums of drawings and paintings completed by Shoesmith in this time are held in the Ulster Museum’s collections, showing his work from the age of 11 to 17. He showed strong promise and was awarded the President’s Prize in 1903, when he was just 13.
The many moods of the sea
This relatively early work, painted when Shoesmith was 23, shows a peaceful contemplative scene of a harbour by the warm light of sunset.
The artist has taken the opportunity to depict five different kinds of sailing vessels, from the grand liner to the small sailboat, demonstrating his skill with the varying shapes and features of these boats.
Shoesmith used many different media in his work, although he was slightly restricted in what he could bring with him on a ship. He sketched and drew, and painted in oil, watercolour and bodycolour, as seen here.
Shoesmith completed his training on the HMS Conway in 1909 and joined the sea staff of the Royal Mail Company as a junior officer.
During the First World War, he was a member of the Mercantile Marine and drew some of the passenger and cargo ships that were pressed into service as dummy warships.
He was particularly successful in rendering the pictorial qualities of ‘dazzle-camouflage’, which consisted of complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other. It was not intended to conceal the ships but to make it difficult to estimate a target's range, speed and direction of travel.
These patterns attracted many artists, including Picasso, and allowed Shoesmith to exercise his artistic skills.
Shoesmith had links to Belfast through his wife whom he met as a young officer, on a cruise before the First World War. She was the youngest daughter of a wealthy Belfast shipowner, Thomas Ritchie, and they married in 1916.
He also had his first one-man show in Belfast in 1921, and later featured in further shows in Liverpool, the Royal Academy, London and the Paris Salon.
The dome of Belfast City Hall is recognisable in the background of this painting depicting the approach of the King and Queen of England to Belfast. The celebratory mood is reflected in the colourful fluttering flags and the busy waiting crowds on the river bank.
When Shoesmith died, his widow returned to her home town of Belfast where she lived until her death, and her husband’s archives were then offered to the Ulster Museum.
As Shoesmith gained more responsibility on the ship he found himself being drawn further away from the practice of painting, and so after the war he decided to ‘give up the sea’ in order to paint full time. “The chief of a modern liner is never really off duty, and I had no time to follow up my artistic inclinations. I held on until the war ended, and then – well, I wanted to paint, and the sea wouldn’t spare me the time. So I had to give up the sea”.
As an artist, he became more ambitious in terms of the kinds of scenes he painted from this time. This is a strong example of the large scale subjects he tackled, and the impressive and captivating images he produced. His ships were not only correct in detail but they were always in and not on the water, for he painted with a seaman's knowledge as well as an artist's perception.
“Familiar as I am with navigating instruments, I never draw them from memory. Seamen and old travellers are the severest critics of technical details in maritime matters; they would be specially hard on inaccuracies committed by an ex-sailor.”
Gradually, Shoesmith’s style became more ‘posterish’; he began to use tinted papers and cards and adapted his technique towards economy of design with a relation to these coloured backgrounds. This tied in with the development of the poster as an art form in the years 1890 – 1930.
In the 1920s new influences were appearing from the Russian constructivist movement and the German Bauhaus, mostly in the form of greatly simplified typography and more dynamic use of blank areas of paper.
In England, London Transport produced some scenic and iconic images on posters which showed people where transport can take them. The shipping companies followed suit, inviting artists to design publicity, mainly in a realistic, inviting style with unpretentious lettering.
The first poster Shoesmith designed for the Royal Mail Company showed an aerial view of the upper decks of RMS Almanzora which had then returned to the South American route after being used for war service. The poster was received as ‘quite novel and outstanding’ and it opened the way for hundreds of designs that Shoesmith subsequently made for booklets, folders, posters, menu cards and calendars for the Royal Mail Company.
Oil paintings: travels on the Orient
During his time with the Royal Mail Company, Shoesmith found himself in the harbours of the Far East and at sea in the North and South Atlantic – “I was constantly excited by the sight of strange craft. More often than not my ‘watch below’ would be spent with pencil and sketch book in some snug corner of the deck”.
In this oil painting, Shoesmith produced a busy and bustling scene of life on the crowded Shanghai River. The oriental figures in the forefront are painted quite uniformly, some rather unflatteringly, and all as secondary to the large hulk of the ship illuminated by the sunlight.
This is a painting of large scale and great depth, with the different areas of light and shade and the colours of the ships and the figures contrasting with the blackness of the smoke rising from the large vessel. It conveys the busy mixture of sights and sounds of the river, and the jostling for space between the people working on it and the various ships which sail on it.
Oil paintings: the Royal Yacht in England
The Ulster Museum holds three large oil paintings in its Shoesmith collection. This is the same size as the previous painting but, in contrast to it, this image is calm, serene and elegant as befits its royal subject.
The Royal Yacht rests in the harbour and the sailboats glide by at a leisurely pace. The white masts create elegant curves in the tranquil surroundings, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the sea has just enough movement for the boats to move smoothly along.
The vibrancy of his colours and precision of detail combine to produce a coherent and elegant image. The subject has also given the artist a chance to exercise his skills in the intricate decoration on the hull of the yacht.
Oil paintings - People of the world
Although most famous and celebrated for his paintings of ships and other sailing vessels, as an artist Shoesmith was also interested in the people of the world, especially those of the exotic and far-flung places he travelled to during the course of his work.
This similarly large scale image of Tangier in Morocco shows a market scene, with flower seller and browsing customers.
Again, he uses his skills at contrasting light and shade to great effect, and is particularly skilled at portraying the dappled sunlight which pierces the trees. The intense heat of the climate is illustrated in the loose garments and wide-brimmed hats of the figures, and in the effects of strong sunlight and rich, bright colours.
The subject has also given Shoesmith a chance to portray the natural form of many different kinds of flowers, demonstrating his skill not just in depicting feats of naval engineering but in rendering the graceful lines of the arum lilies.
Career highlight: decorating the Queen Mary
The high point of Shoesmith’s artistic career came in 1936 when he was commissioned to help decorate the new Cunnard liner, the Queen Mary.
Shoesmith was commissioned for murals in the tourist class writing room and the two Catholic chapels in the popular and newly fitted out liner. She was one of the largest and fastest ocean liners and represented the pinnacle of ship building.The ship captured the public imagination and came to represent the spirit of an era characterised by elegance and style. The art deco interior, decorated with specially commissioned works by British painters and sculptors, was renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship.
The First Class altarpiece, the Madonna of the Atlantic, was Shoesmith’s own idea and was painted on a canvas 5 by 7 feet (150cm x 210cm). This had to be covered with gold leaf by the ‘mosaic’ process which was known only to a handful of gilders, and only real gold leaf could withstand the atmosphere of the sea.
Shoesmith’s beautiful images were warmly received by both the ship’s owners and the travellers on the ship.