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Robert Salmon. Leith Harbor [Edinburgh, Scotland]. 1848.

Robert Salmon. Leith Harbor [Edinburgh, Scotland]. 1848.

Regular price $ 140,000.00 USD
Regular price Sale price $ 140,000.00 USD
Sale Sold out

Robert Salmon (Scottish American, 1775-1848)

Leith Harbor [Edinburgh, Scotland]

Oil on panel


Signed with monogram and dated lower right: “RS 1828”

Signed, dated, and numbered on reverse: “No. 599/ Painted by Robert Salmon/ 1828

16 ¼” x 26’ panel, 22 ½” x 32” framed

Provenance: Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Jr.

Augustus Thorndike Perkins (son of the preceding).

Collection of Lawrence Park, acquired from the above.

Northeast Auctions, 20 August 2006 Marine & China Trade Auction, lot 1081, sold for $182,000 by the above.

Though the manuscript catalogue of his paintings, now in the Boston Public Library, does not mention a working visit to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, this must have occurred either after, or, more likely just prior, to his stay in North Shields, since the two cities are not too distant; all of Salmon's known British works painted in Northwestern England and in the adjacent area of Scotland are dated to 1827 and 1828. That would account for a number of paintings in the vicinity of Edinburgh, including the present work, Leith Harbour, dated to 1828, his last year in Great Britain; Leith is the harbor city for Edinburgh, incorporated as of 1920 into the Scottish capital. Salmon must have brought Leith Harbour with him to America, for it is, in all likelihood, the View of Leith which he exhibited for sale in 1829 at the Boston Athenaeum (#197), the principal venue for art exhibitions in Boston, having begun its annual shows only two years earlier. Even more significantly, this is almost surely the picture shown at the Athenaeum again the following year, 1830 (#91), now owned by Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Jr., the son and namesake of the most important art collector in Boston in the early decades of the 1800s. Perkins, Jr. was an important collector in his own right. Salmon had begun to attract favorable attention immediately on his arrival in Boston in 1828, exhibiting eleven pictures at the Athenaeum in 1829 and eight in 1830. His two competitors among the land- and seascapists in Boston at the time were Alvan Fisher and Thomas Doughty, but the reviewer for the North American Review in 1830, reviewing the Athenaeum annual, noted that: "The works of Salmon have a more decidedly characteristic manner than those of Doughty or Fisher, and are, we believe, in general, greater favorites with the public." Salmon's manuscript catalogue lists at least six more paintings sold to the Perkins-father or son. And, in 1835, he replicated his Leith Harbour, (now in the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia), which he sold in a large auction of his pictures held on May 22 in Corinthian Hall, Boston.

By singularly good fortune, a letter dated June 7, 1881, is appended to Salmon's manuscript catalogue of paintings, written by Augustus Thorndike Perkins, the son and heir to the first owner of Leith Harbour to William Henry Whitmore, the earliest antiquarian to investigate the early arts in Boston and New England. Whitmore had been inquiring about Robert Salmon, and Perkins responded with descriptions of the four paintings by the artist in his collection. He wrote: "The second picture is an English land locked Bay with a light house on left a large Dutch Ship, stern on, near the land; in the center an English Cutter under jib and mainsail, close halled [sic], coming in....The picture is 2 ft. 2 in by 1 ft 5 in wide." Thus, by 1881, the painting had remained in the prestigious Perkins family, though the specific identity of the location had been forgotten. However, in keeping with Salmon's concern for veracity and distinct characteristics, he here defined Leith and its activities as a major, active port. The "light house" at the left is actually the Signal Tower. This was a defining structure at the inner entrance to the harbor, a circular tower at the end of The Shore, originally a windmill built in 1686 by Robert Mylne, to extract oil from rape-seed. Its sails and domed roof was replaced by battlements in 1805, obviously before Salmon painted it so distinctively.

Even the small, sloped-roof structure with a chimney beside the tower, the first structure on The Shore road, is accurately shown. In the far distance, behind the English Cutter, is a long horizontal building, most probably the monumental Custom House, at the end of the docks of Leith, built in neoclassic style in 1812 by Robert Reid. (Alternatively, the structure may be the Exchange Buildings, built by Thomas Brown in neoclassic style in 1809; both are on Constitution Street in Leith). On one side or another of that building is the Water of Leith, the twenty-four mile long river that passes through Edinburgh.

Salmon, in this exceptionally fine example of his very individual approach to marine art, exploits to the fullest four of his major concerns and achievements. First, he is a marine painter, and he emphasizes not only the contrast of the two ships-the full-sail English cutter and the smaller Dutch ship dockside, but the harbor is filled with a variety of other sailing vessels, to offer a full panoply of ships, large and small. Secondly, he emphasizes the activities and purposes of this lively port, receptive to foreign as well as domestic shipping, figures on boats and ships, and those on docks, some of whom are almost certainly involved in shipping activity. Thirdly, he defines the specific nature of this port city, Leith, in particular, with its identifiable buildings, the row of houses along The Shore, the configuration of the waterway and bridges. And finally, he is able to dramatize the scene with his unique aesthetic powers-the strong deep tones of grey-green and gray-blue, enlivened by the near-white sails and the touches of red in the flags. This chromatic combination is Salmon's own, along with his command of dramatic chiaroscuro. Salmon imparts upon the scene an impressive treatment of strong light within a darkening environment, so that a series of parallel planes of light and dark on both water and shore carry the viewer back into space. The whole is illuminated with a separate light in the sky-not rich blues with puffy white clouds--but an oval glow, fading into grey at the upper corners, which cast the ships in majestic silhouette.


Robert Salmon was both an exceptionally fine artist and one of historical significance in the history of American art. He was only the second professional marine specialist to work in the United States-Thomas Birch, in Philadelphia, preceded him-and the first in New England. Thus, Salmon represents the beginning of a vital artistic tradition which would include Fitz Henry Lane at mid-century, and Winslow Homer in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Like Birch, Salmon was born in England, but unlike the former, whose father, William, was a noted artist in his native land, Thomas Birch developed his art in the new American republic. Salmon was a well-established marine painter in both England and Scotland before he immigrated to the United States in 1828. Thus, he was very much a part of the impressive tradition of marine painting in Great Britain that began as early as 1673 when both Willem Van de Veldes, Senior and Junior, brought the Dutch artistic naval tradition from The Netherlands to England. British and foreign-born artists worked and were well-patronized in Great Britain in the eighteenth century, including such painters as Peter Monamy, Samuel Scott, Nicholas Pocock, Thomas Luny, and Domenic Serres. These artists specialized primarily in two forms of marine art: naval battles and ship portraiture.

This tradition continued in Great Britain well into the nineteenth century, inaugurated by Salmon. Unlike those artists, however, Salmon's oeuvre was quite varied. He remains categorized as a "marine artist," for ships and water figure in almost all of his paintings. But, while much of his attention was given to ship portraiture, he essayed many other aspects of marine painting-storms at sea, shipwrecks, fleet regattas, and other subjects such as landscapes, usually with a distant view of the sea. Unlike many of the British artists, and also unlike Birch, Salmon was only seldom given to paint naval battles, though he listed as his earliest picture a now-lost Battle of Trafalgar, painted in 1806, and immediately after his arrival in the United States he painted and then exhibited, between 1828 and 1830, a series of large, fifteen-foot paintings of the 1816 bombardment of Algiers by an Anglo-Dutch fleet, probably based upon a panorama which he had seen when it had circulated in Great Britain. A further influence upon the nature of Salmon's artistry-shared with the earlier Samuel Scott-was the tight and meticulous strategies of the great Italian artist, Antonio Canaletto, much admired and collected in England, who spent a decade there beginning in 1746. And like Canaletto, though transformed into his own very personal style, Salmon was especially a painter of ports and harbors, fascinated both by the activities he found there, and by the distinctive layout and buildings, distinguishing between each of these cities and towns he depicted.

Salmon was born in the port city of Whitehaven in Cumberland, England, and was inspired to his specialty by the environment in which he grew up. Much of his career in Great Britain was spent there and in Liverpool. In 1811 he travelled to work in the ship-building town of Greenock on the west coast of Scotland, moving between there and Liverpool; he was, therefore, both an English and Scottish painter. In 1827 he traveled extensively—he was in London, on the southern coast in Southampton, and then up in the far northwestern city of North Shields at the mouth of the Tyne River, near Newcastle. He left North Shields in May of 1828, and the following month departed on the packet ship, New York from Liverpool, the major port of embarkation for the United States. Arriving in New York, Salmon immediately departed for Boston and appears to have abandoned the more peripatetic life he had led in Great Britain. He was a prolific artist of scenes and subjects similar to those he had painted in his native land. Furthermore, while the majority of his pictures painted in Boston are recognizable American subjects, he also continued to paint or perhaps replicate his British ones--his Shields, England, in the collection of the United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, was painted around 1833---- suggesting an appreciation and demand for foreign subjects among his New England clientele. By 1840, it appears that his eyesight had begun to fail and he is thought to have returned to England, but large panoramas of Palermo and Venice are known from 1845 (Fundacion Coleccion, Thyssen-Bornermizsa, Madrid), which exhibit no diminishing of abilities and are, perhaps, even closer to the aesthetics of Canaletto. Otherwise his final years and his date of death remain unknown.


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