In February 2021, the Port of Cork Company moved from its headquarters to Custom House on Custom House Quay. The company had occupied the premises for over a century, but the site is now to be developed into a major new hotel and shopping centre, while Port of Cork staff have moved to new offices in Tivoli and Ringaskiddy.
One of the main benefits for the city was the decision of the Port of Cork Company to donate its collection of works of art and historical objects to the Crawford Art Gallery. The collection includes a silver Admiralty oar from 1686, an illuminated address to Charles Stewart Parnell and a Cork Harbor Commissioners Registrar referencing both Titanic and Lusitania, and 17 maritime paintings . Of these, eleven are by 19th-century Cobh artist George Mounsey Wheatley Atkinson, including one called Naval Steam Frigate Moored Off Queenstown, which dates from 1838.
“Atkinson was a very interesting self-taught painter,” says Dr. Michael Waldron, assistant curator of collections and special projects at Crawford. “He was born in 1806. His parents were English, but he was born and raised in Cobh, or Cove as it was called then. He was born the same year as Daniel Maclise, who grew up in Cork and trained in art at art school. Atkinson, at the same time, was going to sea, as an apprentice carpenter. On his return to Ireland he took up a desk job as a shipping and emigration inspector.
“He seems to have resumed painting on his return. Maybe he was always interested, and it’s possible he took classes or studied other artists there. He is a good painter, but we can see that he has limits. He doesn’t like numbers very much, for example. People are a bit suggested in his paintings, they are a bit caricatural. But it’s clearly a natural talent.
It was perhaps inevitable that Atkinson would take ships entering and leaving port as his main subject. “Watching from Cobh, he could watch ships all day while he worked. But the view from his house on Merview Terrace also overlooked the harbour. He knew the ships, and who was on them. He knew the captains and what they carried. He knew if they were Navy ships, pleasure boats or traders. And it’s all in the paint.
Cork had become an important trading port by the 18th century, exporting goods such as beef and butter to Britain and the empire. During Wheatley Atkinson’s lifetime, the deep, sheltered harbor on his doorstep also became an important port for the Royal Navy, notably during the Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815.
The Naval Steam Frigate moored off Queenstown is one of three paintings in the Crawford Collection of Works by Atkinson which show a background of Haulbowline Island, Rocky Island and Ringaskiddy Hill , each from a slightly different point of view. “And there, in the foreground, as a point of interest, is the frigate. Atkinson knew exactly what kind of ship he was painting. This one is a warship, and the hybrid of its time, as it has both a funnel and sails. It’s a tall ship with a steam engine.
It is unclear whether Atkinson produced commissioned works or simply painted for his own pleasure. “We know that he exhibited work in the 1840s at the Royal Hibernian Academy and then again in the 1870s, so these were essentially paintings he did to order, in his spare time. When he was not working, it seems, he was painting. We know he took a sailing trip around Norway in the 1850s and sketched as he went. So it was a very personal interest; a hobby, if you will.
In August 1849, when Queen Victoria visited Cobh on her way to Cork, she renamed it Queenstown and Atkinson saw an opportunity to capitalize on it. and the royal yacht. And then he produced lithographic editions of the paintings. We don’t know how big the editions were, but there was a mass market for them. Everyone wanted one. He allegedly licensed his images to a publishing house, which then put a technician in charge of transferring them to print. His depictions of Queen Victoria’s visit were exactly what people wanted, and these prints would have provided him with an excellent income for a time.
Atkinson’s naval steam frigate moored off Queenstown easily combines with his other works in Crawford’s collection, including the painting Paddle Steamer Entering Cork Harbour, which dates from 1842.” The addition of the paintings from the Port of Cork Collection means we have the largest repository of Atkinson’s work,” says Waldron. “We have over twenty, ranging in size from very small paintings to rather large paintings, and they tell a fuller story of the port through the eyes of a single maritime artist.
“We also have the work of two of his children; his daughter Sarah Atkinson and his son, Richard Peterson Atkinson. It was a family business; all his children became artists. But we don’t know much else about George Mounsey Wheatley Atkinson, except that he continued to live on Merview Terrace, overlooking the harbour, until his death in 1884.