ROYAL ESCORTS IN NEW YORK HARBOUR MAY 1939
(MP188). Frank Watson Wood (1862-1953). Watercolour signed and dated 1939 (LR) and inscribed (LL) "Royal Escort Ships Leaving New York 31st May 1939"..
Limited Edition worldwide: 25 copies
Standard size: 20.5 x 10 inches (52 x 25.4 cms) approx.
Price band (mounted/matted): £105-£125
It was in the early spring of 1937 that the Governor General of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir (better known as the author John Buchan) suggested that the new King, George VI, should make a tour of Canada; and when the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, came to London for the Coronation in May 1937 he formally proposed such a visit. President Roosevelt went further: he suggested that the Canadian tour should be combined with a visit to the United States. All parties were in agreement and plans went ahead accordingly for the King and Queen to make the visits in the summer of 1939.
War clouds were daily growing blacker over Europe which although threatening the very idea of such a plan, did introduce a new imperative which the American President was keen to exploit: the British Royal Family on American soil would send a clear message that the two English-speaking nations were in harmony. But such was the concern in Britain over the deteriorating international situation that spring of 1939 that the admiralty was not prepared to sanction the battle cruiser HMS REPULSE, who was to have acted as royal yacht for this voyage, deploying out of home waters and she was replaced by the Canadian Pacific liner RMS EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA (Captain Archibald Meikle MN). No stranger to Royal tours she had carried HRH the Prince of Wales to Canada ten years earlier she was to be escorted by two ships of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet (Vice Admiral G F B Edward-Collins CB CVO) who was flying his flag in HMS SOUTHAMPTON (Captain F W H Jeans RN); HMS GLASGOW (Captain C G B Coltart RN) was in company.
Whilst the two cruisers were alongside in Portsmouth prior to the Royal Squadron’s departure on 6 May, train truck loads of gold bullion from the Bank of England were secretly loaded aboard. The working parties found the cases remarkably heavy for their size and may have guessed at their contents which were bound for the vaults of Fort Knox and safety from the coming war in Europe. It was sign of just how dire the authorities in Britain considered the international situation to be.
Having experienced unseasonably rough weather for the first few days of the voyage the Royal Squadron then ran into thick and persistent fog which lasted for three full days and threatened seriously to disrupt the finely honed royal schedule ashore in Canada. But the fog eventually cleared on 14th May and found the ships amongst spectacular icebergs and floating sea ice. Frank Watson Wood, the Artist on Tour with the Royal party, has painted this scene vividly in another picture in Maritime Prints’ collection (MP 029) : although well into his seventies he seems to have been painting fast and furiously as there are at least some half dozen watercolours of the maritime aspects of this 1939 Royal Tour, this one of SOUTHAMPTON and GLASGOW leaving New York on 31st May being another. Frank Watson Wood had only recently been commissioned by the King to paint scenes from the Coronation Fleet Review of 1937 (see MP 045 and MP 046) and the King’s evident satisfaction with these paintings probably led to him being asked to accompany the Royal party on this tour. The form was that all his work would be submitted to HM on completion of the tour and once the King had selected those he wished to be kept for the Royal Collection the remainder were given back to the artist for use as he wished.
This watercolour of the two cruisers dressed with masthead flags and with the Statue of Liberty framing the scene to the left, was last seen at auction at Christie’s in London in July 1992 until it surfaced again in November 2009. Wood has pulled off a superb painting!