Joseph Richard Bagshawe: Yorkshire painter who captured fishermen's battle with cruel North Sea

John Vincent reports on the changing face of the North Sea, the dangers facing old-time Yorkshire fishermen – and the artist with a price on his head.

Peering out from Yorkshire's 100 miles of coastline into the grey, soupy, exhausted and polluted North Sea can be a dispiriting experience.

But it didn't used to be that way; in Victorian times, it teemed with 40-odd edible species, including prized oysters, each of which can filter up to 200 litres of water a day, making the sea clearer as well as healthier for other marine creatures.

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Amazingly, in the last 150 years, North Sea fish stocks have declined by up to 99%. For a reminder of its former richness, we owe much to Norwegian Ole T Olsen and his Piscatorial Atlas of the North Sea (1883), enabling us to reflect on the extraordinary changes of seabed ecosystems and decline of fish stocks and extinctions since Victorian times.

Joseph Richard Bagshawe’s 1909 oil made £2,355 at TennantsJoseph Richard Bagshawe’s 1909 oil made £2,355 at Tennants
Joseph Richard Bagshawe’s 1909 oil made £2,355 at Tennants

Reasons are clear: industrialised trawling, the expansion of European fisheries during the 1970s and 1980s, pollution and changing weather.

With 100 miles of coastline from Redcar to Spurn Point, Yorkshire once boasted 25 fishing fleets and vast numbers of men drowned in the 19th and early 20th centuries as smacks, traditional cobles and steam trawlers ventured further afield in search of larger, more lucrative catches.

Consequently, images of vessels foundering in the storm-tossed sea have been a recurring theme for painters, with Victorian and Edwardian pictures often depicting shipwrecks and rescues.

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One of many who captured the drama of man's battles with the cruel sea was Joseph Richard Bagshawe (1870-1909), whose 1909 oil, Rescuing a ship from a storm, fetched £2,355 at Tennants, three times over estimate and further evidence that the genre is proving increasingly popular with 21st century collectors.

London-born Bagshawe first visited North Yorkshire in 1896 on a family holiday to Whitby.

So impressed was young Joseph that he later moved there permanently and met his future wife, local shipyard owner's daughter Mildred Turnbull, whom he married in St Hilda's Church in 1901, the same year he became a founding member and first secretary of the Staithes Art Club.

Frequent voyages in a yacht given by his father-in-law set him on course to becoming perhaps the finest painter of ships and the sea of any Staithes Group member. Bagshawe died at 29 from complications arising from diabetes.

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Moving on...and, also a Tennants, a portrait surfaced of Mrs Mary Salisbury, born 1734, daughter of John Lister, of Settle, and great granddaughter of the Vicar of Giggleswick, the Rev. Anthony Lister.

Mary's husband, Thomas Salisbury, of Marshfield House, Bradford, was an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II. The portrait, which fetched £805, is attributed to John Cranch (1751-1821), who was guided by Sir Joshua Reynolds and became acquainted with John Constable.

Another intriguing lot was Frank Brangwyn's mixed media Boxing Match, circa 1919, featuring angular fighters spotlighted in the ring, watched by a huge crowd. It fetched £3,100 and was possibly a study for a woodcut bearing the same title.

The prolific Welsh artist, book illustrator, lithographer, woodcutter and designer (1867-1956) had close ties with Yorkshire and taught George Graham, President of the Society of Yorkshire Artists.

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Among Brangwyn's 80-odd First World War posters was the grim Put Strength in the Final Blow: Buy War Bonds, depicting a Tommy bayoneting an enemy soldier. This caused deep offence in Britain and Germany and the Kaiser is said to have put a price on Brangwyn's head after seeing it.

Space prohibits no more than a brief mention of Leeds-born Arthur Friedenson's bucolic oil Cattle before Richmond, North Yorkshire, which fetched £1,590. It depicts Richmond Castle above the River Swale and overlooking, in the artist's view, cattle grazing near a farmhouse.

A quick word, too, on landscape painter Stanley Royle (1888-1961), a cousin of Nesfield-based Herbert Royle. Stanley's work is appreciating in value, with his Harbour with fishing village beyond making £2,110 (estimate: £300-£500) and Village in a landscape (possibly Seamer, near Scarborough) £1,985 (est.£400-£600).

Finally, back to the poor old North Sea and the demise of European oysters, which were once shipped to Rome and tasty enough to be mentioned by 2nd century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. In the 1850s, half a billion oysters from around Britain and Ireland were sold annually at Billingsgate.

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Olsen's atlas reveals that the Dogger Bank housed an oyster area bigger than Wales. It's now gone, of course, killed off by loss of reefs, overfishing and pollution.

Despite efforts to bring back the native oyster, stocks are now barely 5% of those 200 years ago. A more recent study shows that from 1889-200, fish landings from bottom-trawl catches in England and Wales declined by 94%.

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