Robert Back

Seaman, sailor and marine artist
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The Independent Online

Robert Back was one of the most distinguished British marine painters of his time, noted for his depiction of the great days of sail.

Robert Trenaman Back, painter: born Adelaide, South Australia 4 October 1922; married 1958 Denise Edwards (two daughters); died Seaford, East Sussex 14 February 2004

Robert Back was one of the most distinguished British marine painters of his time, noted for his depiction of the great days of sail.

His collectors appreciated his ability to capture the drama of an historical scene as if witnessed by its contemporaries. Back abhorred the sterile approach of many modern marine paintings which purport to depict the past, "but the general effect is brash, the sails too white and transparent".

As with other branches of specialist painting, marine artists know that they are usually painting for connoisseurs, alert to spot the smallest fault. Back realised this. "Good reference is most important," he wrote. "A painter must see the bones that give a particular ship of the past its recognisable character." The great Dutch and British marine masters of the past were the standard against which he measured himself.

So often in marine painting the ship depicted is technically accurate but exists in a vacuum. Back's ships inhabit a real time and place. In such pictures as his Georgetown Harbour with Aqueduct Bridge and University 1894 the viewer immediately feels that he is there, participating in a scene that lacks only animation and sound track. He exhibited with the Royal Scottish Academy, Royal Society of Marine Artists, David Messum and Omell galleries and his paintings appeared as limited-edition prints. He later exhibited with the dealer Donald Henderson in London and Washington.

Back was a seaman and sailor all his life, as well as a painter. His addiction to being afloat came from both his father's and mother's families. In 1833 his ancestor Captain George Back sailed in search of the Northwest Passage; the adventures of his expedition in the ice-fields are a part of the history of British exploration and earned him a knighthood. Back's maternal great-grandfather was first mate on the Torrens, the wool clipper that held the record of a 64-day passage from London to Adelaide, Australia. His mother's father was one of the first captains of the Lamport and Holt lines, and his mother grew up at the captain's table. Two cousins were admirals in the First World War.

Robert Back was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1922, where his father, William Edward Back, and his mother, née Dorothy Treneman, a singer and gold medallist at the Guildhall School of Music, were then living. His father had moved from England to Australia after the First World War, taking a job as an engineer. He had wanted to be painter, but the family refused and he became an aircraft designer. For Robert, he was "my influence in art". An exceptional artistic talent earned William a Bond Street exhibition at the age of 18 and a friendship with Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy.

Robert was the youngest of four children who revelled in "the outdoor life, the space, the freedom and the friendship of a small outback community". The only time he wore shoes was on a trip into Adelaide, 10 miles away:

There were no toys. Father dammed the gully running through our garden, building a 15-foot-high wall to make a 20-foot-deep swimming pool. We made fleets of square-rig sailing ships and sailed them across the pool into harbours dug out from the clay banks. We even set fire to them like a funeral pyre, and we had our own battles on the water.

When Back's father inherited the family estate in Norfolk, in 1931, the family made a hazardous 1,300-mile trip to Sydney in their ancient car to leave for England. Their ship was the Jervis Bay, of Second World War fame, and excitements of the voyage included

a black P&O vessel with brown boot topping belching smoke as she sliced her way through the calm of the Red Sea; the magic of the Suez Canal; the first sight of England and the four-funnelled Winchester Castle, in her lavender grey and red and black funnels, steaming off to South Africa.

In 1933, Back gained a place at St George's Chapel, Windsor - "a cloistered life, Marlborough suits, big starched Eton collars, and every day two services and a choir practice". Norfolk Broads holidays were spent on the 14ft clinker-built Ursula that his father had sailed as a boy:

He just pushed us off the jetty, saying: "You will learn." I lived through every Arthur Ransome book - Swallows and Amazons, Winter Holiday, Coote Club and Peter Duck.

Back then went to Felsted public school, which had a new art building bequeathed by the Courtauld Institute. He won the school art prize three years running, and Lord Courtauld bought a dockland watercolour of his for five shillings. The school ran a seamen's mission at the Royal Docks in London, and Back would sketch there during school holidays. The docks were packed with liners with accompanying tugs and lighters and Thames sailing barges tacking upriver. "All this, and my sea trip from Australia, fired the inspiration to be a marine artist."

Back's dockland sketches were published when he won the Royal Drawing Society's Gold Medal at the age of 15. The following year he gained a four-year Andrew Grant Scholarship to the Edinburgh College of Art. He was taught still-life, life composition and portraiture, painted in oil. "I soon learned to hide my watercolours and never mention marine art, because it was considered unimportant to great art."

After a year's studies, in 1940 Back volunteered for the Royal Navy, serving as a gunner until 1946. There was no chance of becoming an Official War Artist and when he did practise his art it was not appreciated. In 1942, sketching a ship anchored in the Clyde from the Bay Hotel, he was frog-marched out by plain-clothes police and charged with the same offence as possessing a camera. He "got a rocket" from his destroyer captain and when his sketchbook was returned, each drawing had been stamped and passed by HM Censor.

His ship, the 1917 destroyer HMS Venomous, designed for 90 men but with a crew of 140, was deployed for the bitterly cold Arctic convoys to Murmansk. It was only on the third trip that Back managed to get two hooks for his hammock. The forward mess deck was constantly awash and during one enemy air attack every gun on the ship had frozen.

In August 1942, Back's was one of 14 handpicked ships to take part in the relief of Malta. The attacks on the convoy seemed endless. Only three of the 14 arrived, two others, including the crucial tanker Ohio, being towed in three days later, which enabled Malta to survive another six months until the pressure was off. Back's later war service was spent in a Captain-class frigate, based in Belfast, hunting U-boats.

Returning to civilian life, Back completed his studies at Edinburgh, in 1949 gaining his diploma in drawing and painting. His teachers included the notable artists John Maxwell, Leonard Rosoman and William Gillies. After a year "tramping the streets of London with a portfolio trying to get advertising work", he took a job at Portora Royal School at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. He had a fine testimonial from Gillies, whose criticism he had sought while on wartime leave.

Since boyhood, Back had longed to race on water. A family friend bought him one of the first National dinghies, designed by Uffa Fox, which he called Shrimp. During the war years there was no racing, so Back and his father stripped Shrimp to minimum weight and while in the Navy Robert studied racing manuals. In the first year after the war, Shrimp had an unbeaten record on the Broads. He was asked to helm all sorts of class racing boats. In 1950, he was elected Olympic trialist for the Helsinki Games. In 1965 he crewed in the Admiral's Cup and Fastnet Race in Bob Watson's 15-ton Cervantes.

By then, Back had experienced life in the Merchant Navy. After teaching in Northern Ireland for a year, followed by a short but successful period selling Dexion industrial shelving and a time as sales manager on a turkey farm, he was suddenly at the wheel of a 29,000-ton liner sailing out of the Solent for South Africa. "I had never helmed any ship that size in my life, but nobody knew." After two trips to the Cape in the Edinburgh Castle, he moved over to the Royal Mail ship Alcantara, but, after five years in the Merchant Navy and having got married, he went back to teaching art and to painting marine scenes.

He converted the loft of a cottage in Seaford, Sussex, into a studio. By chance, he met the artist Frank Wootton, like Robert's own father a protégé of Alfred Munnings. Wootton introduced him to Malcolm Henderson, who had a gallery in London. Suddenly his marine paintings started to gain recognition and to go up in value. When Henderson moved to America, Back's market moved with him. In 1983, he had his first major American exhibition at the Atlantic Gallery in Washington, others following.

He was included in standard books, such as Denys Brook-Hart's Twentieth Century British Marine Painting (1981) and the Dictionary of Sea Painters (1980), by E.H.H. Archibald, Curator of Paintings at the National Maritime Museum. Campbell College in Belfast, the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, US Merchant Marine Academy, New York, and US Constitution Museum, Boston, are among public collections holding his work.

Back was a likeable mix of the eccentric, unconventional and conservative, described by one friend a "a Rolls-Royce with no petrol". Finding it cheaper to charter than to own, he continued to sail into old age:

I have a fine geriatric crew and have taught them all to sail. My retired bank manager cooks for me and looks after the money, my church organist offers up a hymn and a prayer and my solicitor looks after the legal side should we ever get bumped.

David Buckman

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