Sail and Steam: A Century of Seafaring Enterprise, 1840-1935

By John Falconer


The accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 heralded an age of unprecedented technological, economic and imperial expansion.

Nowhere was this revolution more apparent than in the maritime world, which underwent a fundamental transition as it emerged into the twentieth century. The invention of photography in 1839 coincided with this great surge of material progress, and the new art was enthusiastically seized upon to bear witness. In the next hundred years the camera was to document every aspect, from great shipbuilding projects to obscure fishing villages. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the sailing vessel reach its most developed form before it was swiftly superseded by the steamship. The increasing importance of Britain’s empire and the expansion of international trade placed greater emphasis than ever before on the protection of the world’s sea lanes, as the ‘wooden walled’ warship gave way to a modern fighting force, culminating in the construction of the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought. In domestic waters the sea was seen as bountiful, sustaining coastal communities in a way of life little changed for centuries.

The camera documented these remnants of another age, capturing images of a society now impossibly remote. The story of this unique period is told through photographs from the National Maritime Museum, chosen both for their aesthetic power and their documentary significance. Selected from the most extensive collection of maritime photographs in the world – an archive of over 250,000 photographs -these images vividly recreate a world of romance, endeavour and hardship in their documentation of man’s shifting, dramatic and often tragic relationship with the sea.

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