Huggins’ iconic 1825 view of the South Sea Whale Fishery

Painted by W[illiam] J[ohn] Huggins, Marine Painter to his Majesty / Engraved by T. Sutherland, SOUTH SEA WHALE FISHERY. A representation of the Ships Amelia Wilson & Castor off the Island of Bouro. _ with their Boats & Crew, in the various process of Fishing, shewing the manner the Spermacetti Whales are caught. London: Leadenhall street, Jany 1st 1825 [but later].
Engraving and aquatint, later restrike on wove paper, 13 ¾”h x 19 ½”w at neat line plus margins, full hand color. Excellent condition.

Later restrike of Huggins view of the South Sea Whale Fishery capturing for an interested public the various stages of whaling, drawn, painted and published in 1825 by W. J. Huggins.

The print depicts the activities of three British whaling vessels off the island of Bouro (Buru) in the Indonesian archipelago. Several sperm whales have been harpooned and another has been brought alongside and is in the process of being carved up for trying out. The image also highlights the extreme hazards of the fishery, with a ship’s boat being stove and sunk by a whale. Lending an air of the exotic, in the right background two or three native vessels observe the goings on.

William John Huggins (1781-1845) enlisted as a common seaman with the East India convoys, taking ship aboard the Perseverance on a long voyage to Bombay and China. During this voyage and his sojourn in the Far East, Huggins picked up a paint brush and sketched and painted the ships and scenes that he saw, refining his skills on his arrival in China. After his return to London, he opened premises on Leadenhall, in the heart of the financial part of city and close to the city docks, where he focussed on marine subjects, greatly assisted by his first-hand experience onboard ship.

One of his paintings was accepted for the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1817 and this brought him to greater prominence. He was to be appointed as “Marine Painter” first to King George IV and then to his successor King William IV, father of Queen Victoria, colloquially the “Sailor King”—as third son he had not been expected to succeed to the throne but instead spent his early career in the Royal Navy on the American and west Indian stations.

South Sea Whale Fishery and its companion Northern Whale Fishery (1829) were published at very much the tail-end of the key-day of British whaling in the Pacific. In the eighteenth century, Britain had been dependent on imports from the New England fishing fleet from the American colonies. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 severely hampered that trade. A heavy tariff was placed on American imports and a large subsidy offered to British whalers, encouraging a domestic interest.

The peak of British interest was in the early 1820s. However, over-fishing meant that the ships had to sail ever increasing distances to hunt, coupled with the ending of the subsidy in 1824, made such voyages less commercially viable for investors, and so led to a general decline in the trade and a commensurate loss of public interest in such scenes.

Huggins and his whaling prints are discussed at some length in Stuart Frank, PhD., “W. J. Huggins, North and South; and New Bedford’s Greatest Whaling Print,” in The Bulletin of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Winter/Spring 2009, pp. 6ff.