The life of John Stobart - an artistic journey from Derby across the Atlantic

John Stobart examines Joseph Wright's 'Philosopher giving that Lecture on an Orrery', that so inspired him as a young...

John Stobart examines Joseph Wright's 'Philosopher giving that Lecture on an Orrery', that so inspired him as a young student (image Derby Museums Trust) - Credit: Archant

Exploring the life of John Stobart

The Bakery, 1950. This bakery was just at the junction of Green Lane and Burton Road in Derby and was painted for a...

The Bakery, 1950. This bakery was just at the junction of Green Lane and Burton Road in Derby and was painted for a college assessment (image John Stobart) - Credit: Archant

Journeying to Bulawayo 60 years ago by sea was arduous. Travelling around the southern cape of Africa could take weeks rather than the hours on a plane that it takes today. As a young student from Derby this journey was one that helped to shape the rest of John Stobart’s life.

Being brought up in Derby the young Stobart could not have lived further from the sea, but he was strangely drawn to it. His mother’s death in 1929 – the year he was born – meant that it was eight years before he travelled to stay with her parents in Liverpool. It was a trip he still remembers vividly: the bustling port, the ships off the Pier Head, the tram ride and the tidal expanse of the Mersey. He even recalls the names of some of the ships, ‘The Empress of Scotland’ and ‘The Mauretania’, ready to sail to Ireland and beyond to America.

The Derby in which John Stobart grew up has changed much in the intervening years. During his latest visit he missed the bustle in the city centre streets and bemoaned the loss of many of the buildings that featured in his early artistic output. However, one building he remembers well has not changed a lot – the former Boot’s the Chemist premises in St Peter’s Street that is now home to Costa Coffee. Stobart’s father moved to Derby as the manager here just after Stobart was born. At that time it spread over four floors and included a lending library and luncheon room as well as the chemists business.

After the outbreak of war in 1939 Derby School moved from St Helen’s House to the relative safety of the Amber Valley. A newly enrolled student, John spent the rest of the war boarding in the ‘temporary’ dormitories with his brother George and fellow students. He loved his time at school and enjoyed the camaraderie of living away from home with the whole school but he freely admits that he was not an academic student, preferring rowing and artistic pursuits. On failing his school certificate he was left with few options but his father’s chance meeting in the Boot’s Luncheon Rooms with the principal of Derby College of Art and Design, Frank Hounsell, proved his lucky break. Hounsell decided to ‘give the boy a try’ and the rest is history.

Irongate, Derby, 1949 (image Derby Museums Trust)

Irongate, Derby, 1949 (image Derby Museums Trust) - Credit: Archant

At Derby College of Art and Design in Green Lane, Stobart gained a grounding in drawing and painting. He learned the importance of studying from life – something that has stayed with him throughout his career – and his close observation of Joseph Wright’s work at Derby Museum and Art Gallery and trips to the art gallery in Birmingham gave him the chance to study great paintings. At Art College in Derby and later at the Royal Academy School in London, the young artist mastered his technique and began to understand how to choose a subject and compose a painting on a canvas. During a break in his learning in order to complete his National Service and visit his father who had just bought a pharmacy business in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he got the big idea that set him on the route he was to take.

As he passed the many estuaries, ports and small harbours on his journey along the West African coastline to the Cape and then on his return up the Eastern coast and through the Suez Canal, he began to see an opportunity. He sketched many of the places he passed and included in his paintings were new ships being commissioned by shipping companies who plied their trade around the still thriving British Empire. Many of these companies were keen to use his paintings as calendar images and their success gave young Stobart almost instant celebrity as a marine painter.

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Continuing to paint the steamships of a fast disappearing age, John Stobart moved to Canada where he got his second lucky break. After deciding to paint the glory of the great sailing ships in the harbours of North America, he needed to research the sailing ships of the day and decided to contact Alan Howard at the Maritime Museum in Toronto. It was here that he perfected the art of painting tall ships and their rigging. Howard also advised him that the USA could prove a better market for his paintings – advice that would prove crucial to his future success.

By now in his mid-twenties, Stobart was heading by train to New York with four of his paintings when fate stepped in again. Sitting by him on the train was Donald Holden, editor of the American Artist Magazine. Holden suggested which galleries he should visit, helping him to land his first solo exhibition at the Kennedy Galleries near Central Park. Stobart is sure that without his Derby accent he might not have even got into the gallery, which turned away many hopeful American artists at the time.

John has followed that first sell-out show with many more. He is famous across the USA for his highly detailed and meticulously researched paintings of the sea and of river ports the length and breadth of North America and beyond. Limited edition prints of his oil paintings sell out with every printing and are avidly collected across the USA.

Despite this fame, John remains at heart a modest Englishman. The money he has made seems almost an embarrassment to him and he has established the Stobart Foundation which helps to kick-start the careers of young artists who paint outdoors, hoping to give them a lucky break. John has featured in his own television series about painting outdoors and his paintings grace the walls of many museums and galleries across the world. However, he has never forgotten the debt he owes to the town where he grew up – Derby. w

The exhibition – John Stobart: An Artistic Journey from Derby Across the Atlantic runs until 6th September at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. See for opening times.