One of the pivotal British Pierhead painters, Joseph Semple painted portraits in oil of some of the last wooden sailing ships ever built. Nineteenth century shipyards in America and Belfast continued to build capable sailing ships in the traditional methods with wood while British yards were primarily working in iron and then steel. Semple held to the traditional methods of his profession. His commissioned paintings show broadside views of ships in action off his home of Belfast, Ireland. While scenes of Liverpool and other Irish sea ports have also been discovered, possibly staying true to his Irish roots, no picture yet has been found with an English headland by the artist.
In the matter of his divergent signatures, from the 1860s there exists examples of his use of ‘Semple'. It is in the late 1870s that he reverts to ‘Sempill' which is believed to be his given family name. More details on the artist will be available shortly with the publication by author A.S. Davidson extensive research on Irish marine artists, due out in 2004.
What resonates throughout the artist's rare known works are these commonalities: striking colors and strong lines which give his paintings dimensional depths beyond most of his contemporaries, perhaps surpassed only by Samuel Walters. His ships are accurately detailed and shown in degrees of activity, from full sail to port arrivals. His works are considered extremely rare, with about 50 painting to date identified as being by the artist.