The Smugglers’ Trail: Uncovering the History of an 18thC British Painting

George Morland’s (British, 1763-1804) Jack at the Capstan is a painting which tells two tales – the oil on the canvas tells the story of smugglers battling a storm as they attempt a dangerous landing on the Isle of Wight. However, if you turn this work over, you find another canvas altogether; a verso made up of labels and text scrawled over and even etched into the stretcher, a verso which hints at a long – and fascinating – story for the art historian to uncover.

GEORGE MORLAND. Fine Art. Leonard Joel Auction
GEORGE MORLAND (British, 1763-1804)
Jack at the Capstan, oil on canvas, 73 x 94cm (90 x 111cm framed)

Immediately recognisable on the back of Jack at the Capstan are an auction house’s inventory and lot numbers scratched into the horizontal stretcher. Then there is the only partially legible label of the leading British gallery, Arthur Tooth and Sons, founded in the mid-19th century and active until the 20th century. Sure enough, by searching an art researcher’s most favoured tool – the online auction record database – we discover that this moody oil by one of London’s most popular 18th century painters had been in an Old Master Paintings auction at Christie’s New York in 1992.

The online database does not include the full cataloguing as the sale must have predated its creation. Importantly, the earlier provenance is missing – provenance that may have been uncovered by the Christie’s specialist who catalogued the work in 1992 (perhaps when the labels on the back were more intact). The next step is therefore to track down a copy of the physical catalogue and as there are none found in Australian libraries I contact The National Gallery of Art Library in Washington DC. They forward scans of the relevant pages in a matter of days, revealing the painting’s long and well-travelled history.


Jack at the Capstan was with Thomas Agnew and Sons, an art dealer in Manchester (and later London), likely in the mid-19th century before it was sold to a Lady Thomas Boscombe. As per the label on the back of the work, Lady Boscombe consigned the work to Arthur Tooth & Sons in London and it then made its way to the United States with Howard Young Galleries in 1927. The painting’s next owner was dealer and gallerist William Thomson in Detroit, who eventually gifted the painting to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. It remained in the Institute’s collection, which is known to be one of the largest and most significant art collections in the United States, until 1992.

Whilst searching for copies of the literature cited by the 1992 Christie’s cataloguing, more records are stumbled upon, even an exhibition that was not included in their research. The painting was exhibited with the Detroit Institute of Arts at their Alger House annex, eleven years prior to being gifted to them. The periodical The Art News from November 1938 includes a review of said exhibition, commenting that “the engaging genre of Morland is found in a drawing and two oils, one of them a stormy beach scene, Jack at the Capstan” (The Art News, pages 13 & 18). Another interesting snippet of the painting’s history is found in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Annual Report from 1955-56 – the work was cleaned and reported on that year.

Morland’s most desirable compositions feature farm labourers, animals in their stables, hunting scenes, and even depictions of devious doings of gypsies and in this case, smugglers. While Jack at the Capstan was with Arthur Tooth and Sons in London it was titled ‘Jack at the Capstan, A View of the Isle of Wight’ (visible on the label verso). Once home to Lord Alfred Tennyson and even to Queen Victoria, The Isle of Wight just off the south coast of England was a renowned smuggling port for centuries. Goods, whether it be brandy, tea, tobacco or textiles were shipped from continental Europe, unloaded on the isle’s beaches, concealed in the many deep ravines and then re-distributed on the mainland of England duty-free. A smooth operation however is always subject to mother nature’s permission. In Jack at the Capstan, Jack and his crew are battling a storm as they attempt a landing.

George Morland. Leonard Joel Auction
George Morland, Shipwreck, 1793, The Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection

Morland’s works are found in institutions worldwide including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Tate, London. A comparative work (with the ship’s mutt included) entitled Shipwreck is found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Deaccessioned from the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1992 through Christie’s New York, straight into the hands of a private NSW collector and now in our salerooms, George Morland’s Jack at the Capstan will be offered in The Collector’s Auction on 21 June at 2pm. We open our doors in Sydney for a public viewing 17-19 June, 10am-4pm.


MARCELLA FOX / Sydney Manager

Banner Image (Detail): GEORGE MORLAND (British, 1763-1804) Jack at the Capstan, oil on canvas, 73 x 94cm (90 x 111cm framed) | $4,000-6,000

June 2022