The obsession that Liverpool, England, touched off for John Stobart has nothing to do with Paul or Ringo.
For Stobart, a child in landlocked Derby in the years before World War II, a visit to the busy port city ignited a lifelong fascination with ships.
“I’ve always been excited about ships since I visited my maternal grandmother in Liverpool when I was 8. … Ever since I was 8, I was either making a model of a ship or drawing one or painting one or something like that,” he said.
Stobart is now 74, His originals have sold for as much as $400,000, while high-quality prints of his work fetch as much as $5,000. He has traveled the world painting scenes of the great ports of the last two centuries — Hong Kong, Sydney, New York, and San Francisco — as well as a slew of American river scenes and other landscapes.
Stobart, who lived in Potomac from 1976-82, was at Potomac Library Wednesday, Nov. 17, to show slides and talk about his art. He described how he became an artist and showed personal favorites from his large body of work, including several paintings from his personal collection that he said he would never consider selling, and one painting belonging to a collector that Stobart tried — unsuccessfully — to buy back for $400,000.
As a schoolboy in Derby, Stobart said he was “a total dunce” who lagged behind in school. His father enrolled him in the College of Arts and Crafts, a kind of catch-all vocational school for those not headed to rigorous universities. His dormant artistic talent took off immediately, and on graduation he was one of only a handful nationwide to be accepted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London.
STOBART’S EARLY WORKS were scenes of the English countryside, particularly of marshes and ponds. He has been a longtime advocate of painting on-site rather than in the studio with the aid of photographs, and he is a prominent figure in the plein-air, or open air, art movement.
Following a stint in the Royal Air Force, Stobart traveled by steamship to visit his father in Rhodesia. On that trip, he conceived of a way to begin his career as a maritime artist: painting portraits of the massive ships in port on commission from the shipping companies. The commission work was lucrative and continued for several years before Stobart decided that he wanted to work more independently and took a year off to study the rigging of historic sailing ships.
“When you guys were over helping us with Hitler, the young men of England were getting very upset because all the young women were running off with Americans,” and Stobart became enchanted with the cavalier spirit of the United States, he said. “I thought, one of these days it might be a nice place to go and live.”
He came to New York in 1965 and quickly won a solo exhibition at the Kennedy Galleries. All of the works sold within three weeks.
Stobart traveled the United States researching port cities as they were in the late 19th century. “I wanted to do a retrospective of American port scenes,” he said. “When I came to America and found that it had never been done, that was very exciting.”
Stobart said he “hasn’t the foggiest idea” what brought him to Potomac in the late 1970s except that he wanted to live in a place where he could grow vegetables. He lived on Stanmore Drive with his then wife and three children for six years.
THOUGH STOBART SOMETIMES paints ships at sea, he said he likes the scale and perspective conveyed by ships in port. The majority of his works are oil-on-canvas portraits of the tall merchant ships of the 19th century.
“In those days, it wasn’t very exciting for people of those days to do [this type of art]. … It was a messy, dirty place and a lot of people died on these ships, and it wasn’t an attractive thing for them to paint. Would you like a painting of a Greyhound bus on your wall?” Stobart said. “But now it’s glamorized as a great, fantastic thing that we missed. And these sailing ships look beautiful.”
His paintings, from the deserted vessels of San Francisco harbor during the gold rush to the long, dirty wharves of New York and Boston by moonlight, have strong local identities.
“I choose the epitome of each place I go to and try to bring it back to life,” Stobart said. “You don’t often see really nice paintings that give you an emotional response. That’s what it’s all about. … I try to make a painting you can walk around in and enjoy and be there.”
Dr. Csaba Magassy, a Potomac resident in attendance Wednesday, deserves thanks from anyone who enjoys Stobart’s work. Magassy met Stobart at Fairfax Hospital when Stobart was admitted with serious burns covering his hands.
“He was working with some paints, turpentine or something, and he burned his hands," said Magassy, a plastic surgeon. Magassy did more than just treat Stobart’s burns.
“He was in the hospital for a couple of weeks with his burns, and he wanted a room with a southern exposure so he could paint.” Magassy helped him secure the room “and we established a friendship,” he said. "He was painting right in the hospital as he was healing.”
Magassy now owns several Stobart paintings and has plenty of praise for Stobart and his work.
“He’s more than just an artist, he's also a historian great portrayer of the past,” Magassy said. “He's very conscientious, and he researches what he does. That’s what impresses me the most. ... He’s very true to form as how the rigging was, how they were crossing, where the wind was coming from.
”The wonderful thing is the skies. The sky actually captures the essence of the pictures. It illuminates everything.”
“He’s been easy to represent,” said Virginia Smith, director and co-owner (with Stobart himself) of the Atlantic Gallery in Georgetown, which sells Stobart prints as well as occasional originals. “He has a distinctive style, which is what any art dealer wants, so you can recognize from across the room, ‘Oh, that’s a Stobart.’”
“He is marine art today. … He’s a big deal. I don’t know if that’s art talk, but he is.
“He just kind of lives it and feels it and breathes it,” Smith said. “That’s why he was so effective [at the presentation]. It couldn’t really be faked. … He’s the real thing”