In a display of absolute mastery of artistic ability, Spurling’s narrative portrait of the clipper ARIEL in the lead of the great tea race of 1866 is arguable the finest piece of art representing this historic ship. Evident without any other proof is the demand for speed set by Captain John Keay in the quest to reach port first. The reward: a 10-shilling per pound bonus for the 1,230,900 pounds of tea compactly tucked in the hold.
The coloration and depth portrayed combine to make a striking work. A sharp lined clipper built in 1865 for Shaw, Maxson & co. By the Robert Steele yard, the ship’s 195 foot length held the 852 registered tons smartly. The motion of waves and the exacting depth of the full sails reaching nearly to the deck shows the care employed by Spurling to precisely illustrate the action.
A moment at its zenith, the success of the tea trade led to an eventual saturation of the British market. The 1866 season saw 16 clippers gathered at the pagoda anchorage to load tea and race home. ARIEL and TAIPING actually finished in a near dead heat and split the premium offered. Three more ships finished within 24 hours of their arrival. The much-heralded and recorded event continues to draw admiration for the men, ships and artists involved.
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