On Framing Boats—and “the Fellowship of the World”

We just framed this charming little painting of a boat under construction. Titled “Lowell’s” (presumably, for the boatbuilder whose shop is depicted), it’s an oil on board, 9″ x 12″, by New England artist Kevin Shea. The frame is a No. 403 CV—2-1/4″ in quartersawn white oak (Weathered Oak stain) and an 1/8″ wide pale gold slip. We just added this design to the catalog, here. We chose the overall cushion form to echo the curve of the hull, and the carved cove sight edge to work with the texture of the paint on the canvas. It also suits the theme of handcraft in wood.

Kevin Shea, “Lowell’s,” n.d. Oil on board, 9″ x 12″. Framed in No. 403 CV—2-1/4″ with gilt slip.

Boats under sail or at harbor, under construction, or in decay seem to have a claim on the human soul, and so naturally make favorite subjects for painters. Few have so eloquently expressed this appeal as John Ruskin, whose 198th birthday is this week (February 8). In 1855 Ruskin published The Harbours of England, “a description of [JMW] Turner’s sequence of drawings of the same name and a kind of long prose poem of Ruskin’s enchantment with the sea,” according to Ruskin biographer Francis O’Gorman. It opens with a passage that I find absolutely breathtaking—one of the great examples of the author’s genius for identifying in ordinary labor and in small details the greater unity—and great joinery—of the world.

Of all things, living or lifeless, upon this strange earth, there is but one which, having reached the mid-term of appointed human endurance on it, I still regard with unmitigated amazement. I know, indeed, that all around me is wonderful—but I cannot answer it with wonder:—a dark veil, with the foolish words, NATURE OF THINGS, upon it, casts its deadening folds between me and their dazzling strangeness. Flowers open, and stars rise, and it seems to me they could have done no less. The mystery of distant mountain-blue only makes me reflect that the earth is of necessity mountainous;—the sea-wave breaks at my feet, and I do not see how it should have remained unbroken. But one object there is still, which I never pass without the renewed wonder of childhood, and that is the bow of a Boat. Not of a racing-wherry, or revenue cutter, or clipper yacht; but the blunt head of a common, bluff, undecked sea-boat, lying aside in its furrow of beach sand. The sum of Navigation is in that. You may magnify it or decorate as you will: you do not add to the wonder of it. Lengthen it into hatchet-like edge of iron,—strengthen it with complex tracery of ribs of oak,—carve it and gild it till a column of light moves beneath it on the sea,—you have made no more of it than it was at first. That rude simplicity of bent plank, that can breast its way through the death that is in the deep sea, has in it the soul of shipping. Beyond this, we may have more work, more men, more money; we cannot have more miracle.

For there is, first, an infinite strangeness in the perfection of the thing, as work of human hands. I know nothing else that man does, which is perfect, but that. All his other doings have some sign of weakness, affectation, or ignorance in them. They are overfinished or underfinished; they do not quite answer their end, or they show a mean vanity in answering it too well.

But the boat’s bow is naïvely perfect: complete without an effort. The man who made it knew not he was making anything beautiful, as he bent its planks into those mysterious, ever-changing curves. It grows under his hand into the image of a sea-shell; the seal, as it were, of the flowing of the great tides and streams of ocean stamped on its delicate rounding. He leaves it when all is done, without a boast. It is simple work, but it will keep out water. And every plank thence-forward is a Fate, and has men’s lives wreathed in the knots of it, as the cloth-yard shaft had their deaths in its plumes.

Then, also, it is wonderful on account of the greatness of the thing accomplished. No other work of human hands ever gained so much. Steam-engines and telegraphs indeed help us to fetch, and carry, and talk; they lift weights for us, and bring messages, with less trouble than would have been needed otherwise; this saving of trouble, however, does not constitute a new faculty, it only enhances the powers we already possess. But in that bow of the boat is the gift of another world. Without it, what prison wall would be so strong as that “white and wailing fringe” of sea. What maimed creatures were we all, chained to our rocks, Andromeda-like, or wandering by the endless shores; wasting our incommunicable strength, and pining in hopeless watch of unconquerable waves? The nails that fasten together the planks of the boat’s bow are the rivets of the fellowship of the world. Their iron does more than draw lightning out of heaven, it leads love round the earth.

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