The Eddystone in art

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Four lighthouses have stood on the Eddystone Reef. You can find great descriptions of each of them on the Trinity House website. Here are some more insights inspired by two historic paintings.

Eddystone Lighthouse Painting

This oil painting by an unknown artist is called the ‘First Eddystone Lighthouse’.

The lighthouse was built by Henry Winstanley. He had trained as an engraver and was an inventor of mechanical waterworks and other automata.

With a longstanding interest in architecture, he was appointed as the Clerk of Works at the Royal properties at Audley End and Newmarket in 1679, bringing his abilities to the attention of the King and Sir Christopher Wren. With a growing reputation, he was considered the ideal person to build a lighthouse on the notorious Eddystone reef; a task considered desirable but impractical just thirty years earlier.

Winstanley put some of his own money into the building project and joined the private consortium which funded the work. To help support this investment, he opened his house in Saffron Walden to the public as the ‘Little House of Wonders’ and launched a ‘Mathematical Water Theatre‘ at London’s Hyde Park.

Winstanley began work on his polygonal tower in 1696. It was first lit in 1698 – the very first offshore light to be built in the world. There was no design template and this perhaps helps to explain why in images and artworks the lighthouse appears somewhat eccentric, with external ladders, a huge decorative weather vane and ornamental scrollwork.

The lighthouse was apparently lit by sixty candles and a hanging oil lamp. It had a ‘State Room’ with carvings and paintings by some of the pre-eminent artists of the time. The building was considered to be of national importance and Winstanley had expected the King to visit.

In the spring of 1699 Winstanley strengthened and greatly enlarged the lighthouse’s tower. It is this modified building that was swept away on November 27, 1703. Winstanley was working in the building at the time and sadly lost his life along with the lighthouse keepers.

No shipwrecks were recorded while Winstanley’s lighthouse stood on the Eddystone. Just two days after the storm, the ‘Winchelsea’, inbound from Virginia with tobacco, was wrecked on the reef. The pressure was then on to design and build another lighthouse – a task that fell to London-based silk merchant and furrier, John Rudyerd. His lighthouse stood on the reef for nearly 50 years before being destroyed by fire.

Eddystone Lighthouse Watercolour

This is Smeaton’s Tower as it appeared to the painter Nicholas Matthews Condy, on the treacherous Eddystone reef long before it received its red and white stripes.

Condy the Younger, as the artist is known (to distinguish him from his father Nicholas Condy, also an artist) grew up in Plymouth and spent much of his youth observing ships. This enabled him to replicate their rigging with convincing accuracy. He also had a gift for painting the ocean in all kinds of weather.

In this watercolour, Eddystone, he portrays a precarious moment at the reef on a squally day. A burst of sunlight dramatically illuminates the swell. A small vessel and its three-man crew negotiates the notorious reef, which lies 12 miles offshore and is almost totally submerged at high tide. A wave crashes onto the rock demonstrating what happened to many a ship before the lighthouse was built, when it was not unknown for captains to take a route along the French coast rather than risk running aground.

After attending Mount Radford School in Exeter, Condy seemed destined for a life in the navy or the military like his father. He opted instead to follow his father’s other career, and became an artist. He was no doubt encouraged in this venture by the interest given at an early age by the Earl of Egremont, JMW Turner’s patron. He is reputed to have admired young Condy’s painting of the yacht ‘Kestral’ on a visit to his father, and paid him ten guineas for it.

Sadly, Condy never fully realised his early promise. He remained in Plymouth, where he established himself as a successful marine artist, marrying and setting up home at Mill Bay Grove, near the Hoe. He exhibited three excellent marine pieces at London’s Royal Academy. He might have distinguished himself as a marine painter had he not died prematurely.

There is some uncertainty over his age at death. In the absence of a birth certificate, the censuses of 1841 and 1851 estimate his birth year as 1821 and 1820 respectively. This means he would have been only 30 or 31 when he passed away.

He would no doubt have been pleased to know that his daughter Harriett married a successful artist, Walter Duncan, and that his own work would still be highly regarded over a century and a half later.

Two of his paintings can be seen at the National Maritime Museum. Although best known for his marine subjects, several of his canvases represent scenes you might find reassuringly familiar: Mount Edgcumbe, Maker and the Royal William Yard.

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