Clarkson Stanfield went to sea as a boy and was encouraged by Captain Marryat, the novelist, to devote himself to painting. Stanfield was press ganged into the Navy in 1812, but was discharged in 1818. Once in London he found himself in dire need of work, and joined the East London Theatre as a scene painter. The success he achieved as a scene painter assisted in his public recognition as a marine artist, and by the 1820s he had exhibited his finest paintings at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists, and the British Institution. He quickly became a prominent figure in London’s artistic and theatrical community, associating with artists such as Turner, Constable, John Sell Cotman, Etty, Mulready, and the writer, Charles Dickens. Stanfield’s huge canvas, St. Michael’s Mount of 1830, brought him Royal recognition, and patronage from other prominent society figures followed. In 1832, Stanfield was elected to the Royal Academy, and he served on the Council for a further eight years. He traveled extensively throughout his life, and in his later career he turned to the illustration of travel books. Stanfield enjoyed commercial success in his lifetime; Agnew’s stock books of the 1850s show that the paintings bought and sold by them were equaled in price only by Turner, Landseer and Millais.
Stanfield is known primarily for his landscape and marine paintings. Works such as The Battle of Roveredo of 1851, and The Abandoned of 1856, have led critics to describe him as a major landscape talent. In his book, Modern Painters (1888), John Ruskin wrote: ‘One work of Stanfield alone presents us with as much concentrated knowledge of sea and sky, as, diluted, would have lasted any one of the old masters his life.’
Stanfield’s extremely detailed style is indebted to the copious sketches and watercolors made during his travels, which provided the basic material for his stage scenery and paintings. The style of his early watercolors demonstrates the influence of Bonington. However, by the mid-1830s, he had developed a technique for finished watercolors, characterized by the heavy use of white body color and frequent use of scratching out.
In 1870, three years after his death, Stanfield was awarded a major retrospective of his work at the inaugural Royal Academy Winter Exhibition. In its appraisal of the show, The Times wrote:
There are no English painters whose works have won wider and warmer popularity outside the artistic pale. Stanfield’s practiced command of the artist of composition, his unerring sense of the agreeable and picturesque in subject and effect, his pleasant and cheerful color and last, not least, the large use to which he turned his knowledge and love of the sea and shipping… (all) added to the widespread admiration he had won by his consummately skillful scene painting, (and) combined to make him one of the most popular, if not the most popular, of landscape painters.