Small Craft

Late 19th & Early 20th Century British Yachting

The Sailors: Amateur British & Irish Yachtsmen Before World War One

Arthur Briscoe, 1873–1943

(The following is from the Cornwall Heritage Access Information Network site)

Arthur Trevor Briscoe, was one of Britain's leading etchers in the 1930s. He was born at Birkenhead on 25 February 1873. He was the eldest son of a prominent Liverpool businessman of the cotton-broking firm Briscoe, Fox and Partners. He went to Shrewsbury school where he excelled at drawing and painting. He studied under an artist called Hilton before he went on a trip to America and Japan with his father, sketching the places they visited. On his return he entered The Slade School of Fine Art and studied under Professors Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks. He then studied for 18 months at Julian's Atelier in Paris.

Briscoe's early style was very decorative and his black and white work, was influenced by Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites. He undertook book illustration and was a cartoonist of some ability. With a comfortable private income he was not too interested in seling his work and if he did, he would mark it with the exact price and would never reduce it in order to make a sale.

In 1899, Briscoe bought the 3 ton cutter Doris, which he sailed around the Essex coast near where he was based in Maldon. He married Mabel Shawyer in 1901, and they would often sail down to the Fal and Helford Rivers, and then to Calais and Holland.

Briscoe held his first one man show in 1906 at the Modern Gallery in Bond Street, called 'Round the North Sea and Zuyder Zee', which included 35 watercolours. This exhibition established his reputation as an artist. He kept up illustration with a book he wrote and illustrated, A Handbook on Sailing, and also did illustrations for the Illustrated London News.

During the years leading up to the First World War Briscoe was a regular contributor—both in writing and illustration—to The Yachting Monthly. He used these pages to recount his sailing adventures along the coast of England and in Europe in articles such as "Holland in a Deep Draught Boat".

During the War he received a commission as a Lieutenant in the R.N.V.R., one of his duties being to patrol Scapa Flow. He held command of a Motor Launch (M.L.) during at least part of his service. During these years he was recognized by The Yachting Monthly in one of their Our Portrait Study articles. Briscoe continued to contribute to the magazine throughout the war. After the war he returned to sailing his yacht Golden Vanity around the southern regions of the North Sea and painting. As well as marine subjects he often painted portraits of friends and neighbours.

In 1922, Briscoe met Captain Stsancowicz who was a master of the Polish sail-training ship Lwöw, named after the Polish town. Briscoe was invited to join her crew as 'Professor of English' on a journey which took them from Rotherhithe to Fowey and then on to Genoa. Whilst he taught the cadets English sailing terms, he had time to sketch all aspects of life on a square-rigger. On his return home and after a meeting with the etcher James McBey, in 1923 Briscoe returned to etching once more producing plates of some of his sea sketches.

In 1925, Briscoe arranged with Harold Dickens a London publisher, to print editions of 75 of his etchings. He continued to be Briscoe's main publisher for the next 10 years. Dickens sold Briscoe's work to the New York market (apparently through the gallery of Arthur Ackermann & Son) and thus helped his name to become international. Critics of the time called him a 'salt-water' artist par excellence and that no-one could portray the life, the men and the work as he could.

Alex Hurst, in his book Arthur Briscoe—Marine Artist—His Life and Work, points out that Briscoe had of course "seen many a square-rigger at sea and been aboard plenty in docks and harbour... Certainly it is quite incredible that a man who spent so limited a time at sea in such vessels, and none whatever in the hard weather of the high latitudes: the heavy water on deck; the whole feel of a barque flying before a gale, and such matters with such accuracy" (p.58). Briscoe's accuracy seems to have come from his sketchbooks and all the notes he made of every aspect of working life at sea. He also kept a model of a square rigger in his studios at all times to check that everything he depicted in the boats was correct.

In 1927, after divorcing his first wife, Briscoe married Alice Baker, one of his life models. They moved to London and spent summer holidays in St. Mawes, Cornwall. Briscoe acquired an 18ft lugger which he used to sail in Falmouth bay where he made many sketches of the tall ships arriving from Australia. In 1929 he made another voyage on a square rigger, the barque Alstor, but there is little evidence of sketches made on this trip.

In the 1930s, Briscoe's work was greatly sought after and in Brussels an exhibition of marine art dedicated a whole room to his work. In 1933, his mother died and he came into a large inheritance. He moved to Walton-on-Naze in East Anglia and other than a short spell in Brixham, Devon, during the war, there he remained until his wife died.

Further reading:

Arthur Briscoe—Marine Artist —His Life and Works by Alix Hurst

Known Boats: