Robert Salmon (1775-c.1845)

Robert Salmon

Written by David A Cross

Occupation: Marine Artist

Early Life in Whitehaven

Baptised on 5 November 1775 at St James’ church, Whitehaven, Robert Salmon was the second son of the silversmith and jeweller Francis Salomon [b.c.1745] and his wife Susannah. Whitehaven was one of the four most important ports in England at this date, exporting coal to Dublin and importing Baltic timber, tobacco, sugar and rum. Francis had come from Scotland to benefit from the prosperity of this growing town.  In 1776 he advertised in the Cumberland Pacquet his stock of plate and jewellery and two years later came the attack on Whitehaven by John Paul Jones [1747-1792].  After this event Francis, living in King St., contributed half a guinea for the improvement of the harbour defences. This raid by the ‘notorious pirate’ Jones, whose men managed to ‘spike’ thirty guns, impressed itself upon the mind of the young Robert, whose sister Ann was baptised in 1779.  Robert showed an interest in painting and drawing at an early age and aged eight won a prize for dancing a hornpipe on the quay.  Steeped in the nautical traditions of his birthplace, he developed an ‘intimate knowledge’ of the intricacies of rigging, the complexities of sails and the handling of ships, probably going to sea in his teens during this golden age of sail. His relative Robert Thompson of Maryport was master of the brig Dykes and by 1811 owned two of his nephew’s works. As is evident from his canvases, he was familiar with the range of naval and commercial vessels and would have observed traditional wooden hulls being built by Daniel Brocklebank [1741-1801], who was very active in Whitehaven from 1785-95. 

Certainly the bustling port of Whitehaven was a great stimulus and Salmon soon became a marine artist, being ‘thought to have shared the same master (unknown) as John Clementson’ [c.1780-1841 and Henry Collins [1782-1824]. There was a small marine school of artists in the town and this master may have been a pupil of Joseph Hinde, the nephew of Matthias Read [1669-1747], the earliest Whitehaven artist. His precision probably owes something to the crafts skills of his father. Salmon must also have had some access to the work of Dutch artists of the 17thc, or English artists such as John Cleverly the Elder [c.1712-1777] or Nicholas Pocock [1740-1821], perhaps though the Lowthers or other affluent customers of his father. Though many of his works were of conventional subjects, such as Looking out over Whitehaven Harbour in a Flat Calm [Beacon Museum, Whitehaven] and Two Armed Merchantmen leaving Whitehaven Harbour [1800], his earliest recorded work, he was also prepared to essay more challenging and perhaps less saleable subjects like A Ship Run Aground in Whitehaven Harbour. In youth he must have explored the Lake District, and his rare inland work The Langdale Pikes captures not only a familiar profile but also the characteristic recession of fells.

London and Liverpool

By 1800 Salmon had moved to London and in 1802 was much encouraged to have Whitehaven Harbour, Cumberland selected by the Royal Academy hanging committee; at this date he lived at Tabernacle Square, Shoreditch and used the name R. Salomon. The precocious JMW Turner [1775-1851], his exact contemporary, was elected RA in 1802 and that year’s exhibition was criticised for including more portraits than usual, a further indication of Salmon’s achievement in an imbalanced show. He was also in competition here with the newly arrived Marie Tussaud [1761-1850], showing her grisly waxwork of Maximilien Robespierre [1758-1794]. Salmon’s other early works are The Brig Ariel [National Maritime Museum], A Maltese Cutter [Science Museum], An Indiaman in the River Mersey [Mellon Centre, Yale University] and The Estridge in Two Views, off Dover [1802]. The two orientations of the same vessel on one canvas were often commissioned by ship owners to show off all the features; The Alfred [1804] shows three views of the same vessel. One of Salmon’s prize possessions was his own copy of a wild sea by Turner, thought to be The Wreck of the Minotaur [Private Collection]; his own original work was rarely as dramatic. In London he would have keenly studied the work of Thomas Luny [1759-1837] and Thomas Whitcombe [1763-1824] and his own work, which has a ‘freshness and an honesty’, sometimes lost by others [Wilmerding] has resonances of Canaletto [1697-1768], Samuel Scott [1702-1772] and Thomas Rowlandson [1757-1827].

Arriving in Liverpool, in 1806, Salmon had twenty six guineas in his wallet, so he exhibited The Battle of Trafalgar, on speculation, selling it for eight guineas. By this date he had achieved an early maturity, demonstrating ‘a surer grasp of space and perspective’ [Wilmerding]; he also began to catalogue and date his ship portraits and other works. From 1812 to 1840 he often worked upon panel, which, despite the solid support so useful for detailed precision work, had been outdated since the 17thc. Thirty two of the seventy five works listed in public collections are panel paintings, perhaps an support favoured by his original master. Among the Liverpool canvases are Man o’ War at Anchor on the Mersey [1808; Richard Green Gallery], A Packet, off Liverpool [Liverpool Maritime Museum] and A British 18-Gun Snow departing from the River Mersey [sold Edinburgh c.2000]. These works are ‘closely-knit [and] tightly-painted’ generally depicting bright sunshine and ‘breezy weather’ [Wilmerding]. He also observed a royal visit to the city on 18 September 1806 and in 1807 completed Visit of the Prince of Wales to Liverpool [Private Collection], a very colourful composition with the main vessel moored to the wharf, decked overall with hundreds of flags and the crew standing in rows aloft. In 1809 Sir John Warburton commissioned The Ship, Lady Warburton: View on the River Platte, as a present for the Prince Regent. By 1811 Salmon had listed 113 more completed paintings.

In his five years in the growing city he achieved about 500 paintings altogether, including The Ann, off Birkenhead [National Maritime Museum] and, for him, the unusual Bidstone, Wirral, Old Lighthouse and Flagpoles [Liverpool Maritime Museum] and Liverpool Town Hall, illuminated [Walker Art Gallery]. Many of these are not simply paintings but valuable historical documents recording the details of the growing port. From Merseyside, he explored the North Wales coast and painted The Great Orme [Virginia Museum] at Llandudno and Holy Head Light.  Ship owners sometimes commissioned works depicting landscapes he did not know, such as Ships of the John Gladstone Fleet, possibly off Hong Kong [Christie’s 2008], vessels owned by the firm founded by W.E. Gladstone’s father. Many of his works contain small figures of an appropriate scale, achieving identifiable posture or movement with ‘little modelling and just a few accents of colour’, described later as ‘especially happy’ [Wilmerding; Tuckerman]. 

Based on the Clyde

Salmon’s relatively peripatetic life was probably driven by a search for commissions. He arrived in Greenock, on the south shore of the river Clyde, on 10 June 1811. The river here was was deeper and even when dredging enabled shipping to sail nearer to Glasgow, the wharves at Greenock were still popular and busy. Scott’s [est.1711] was ‘the oldest active shipyard in the world’ and here he witnessed The Launch of the Christian [1818; Glasgow Museum]. Greenock Custom House was built from 1817-1818 and appears in Custom House Quay, Greenock [McLean Museum and Art Gallery]. Here, too, was painted his View of the Middle Church and Harbour [McLean Museum], a work featuring landscape and architecture. Among other Scottish works are HMS Revenue Cutter, ‘Wickham’ [Campbelltown Museum] and An Armed Merchantman making her way past the Tail of the Bank,[1814] a major anchorage on the Firth of Clyde. Several works show the bustling Broomielaw quay, on the north bank of the Clyde, where steamers set forth. This seething spot was the setting for one of his American works: Glasgow Excursion Steamers and American Ship on the Clyde [c.1832; Glasgow].  Like JMW Turner, he was fascinated by the advent of steam and celebrated the brightly striped funnels in several compositions. That he spent more than a decade in Scotland suggests that he felt at home in the country his father had quitted and in Boston he still spoke with a Scots accent.  He exhibited 1812 at the Society for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences, Greenock and the critic in the Advertiser, wrote that he was ‘excelled by few’ and his work ‘touched with a minuteness and brilliancy which has a good effect in small pieces’. He also tackled popular landscape views in Scotland, several versions being painted in Boston, including Loch Lomond [1848], after Julius Caesar Ibbetson [1759-1817] and nearby Glen Fruin; Loch Goil [1833], an arm of Loch Long; and Ailsa Craig, a version of which he believed was the ‘best picture I ever painted’.  He covered The Kyles of Bute Looking North [sale Edinburgh 2015] and scenes of the Firth of Forth on the east coast but produced 250 paintings of Clydeside alone. Of other artists, he is known to have made copies of work by both George Morland [1763-1804] and the Rev John Thompson of Duddingston [1778-1840], who had been visited by Turner. A related work was his dramatic response in 1836 to the popular poem The Shipwreck [1762] by the Edinburgh seaman and writer William Falconer [1732-1769].

Touring the English Coast

On 11 October 1822 he returned to Liverpool and while living at Warwick St, Toxteth Park, produced a further eighty paintings before 1825, including A Mail Packet with other shipping off Liverpool. Intriguingly 1822 was also the year that Daniel Brocklebank [1741-1801], shipbuilder of Whitehaven, opened an office in the city, the family retaining at least one of Salmon’s paintings until the 1980s. He exhibited at the Royal Liverpool Institution in 1824, then until 1828 made extensive  coastal tours, the titles of his paintings charting the route. These wider peregrinations may have been stimulated by the appearance from 1826-1828 of the three volumes of Turner’s Ports of England, illustrated with fine engravings. Salmon would, like his more famous comtemporary have travelled about much of the time on coasters, sketching the ships, coasts, seas and crowded harbours en route. The resulting work includes Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland with the Wreckers; Shipping at Tynemouth Point; English Cutter and Lugger off North Shields; Marsden Rocks, South Shields; Moonlight Scene with Figures on the Quay, Ramsgate; Southampton from the Pier; Spithead; Bristol Harbour; Off the Needles, Isle of Wight [Yale Centre for British Art]; Plymouth Sound and Breakwater; Torbay; Off the Dodman’s Head, the highest point on the south coast of Cornwall; St Michael’s Mount; Land’s End and Royal Naval Vessels off Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven. In 1827 he exhibited Shipwreck at the British Institution from a London address.

Emigration to New York

Though selling well, Robert Salmon decided in 1828, aged 53, to emigrate to America, believing that more opportunities existed in the New World. One of his Boston patrons recalled that he had explained that he had ‘run away from England, because he had thrown a stone at the king’ but despite his irascible temperament, this seems unlikely. On the eve of his departure, in late November, he changed his name from Salomon to Salmon, to facilitate his assimilation, and sailed on the packet ship New York of the Black Ball Line [est.1819], to that eponymous city, arriving on New Year’s Day 1829. He took sketchbooks and numerous small scale oil paintings of English subjects with him, including the portrait ‘Paul Gomes’ [perhaps John Paul Jones, the bogeyman of his childhood], probably in a further attempt to make himself desirable to future patrons. Regrettably, despite having being dubbed the ‘father of the American navy’, Jones was barely remembered in America and the portrait raised little interest. Salmon was more successful with the portraits Sir William Wallace, Flora MacDonald and the landscape The Falls of Niagara, painted after an engraving, perhaps William Byrne’s print after Richard Wilson [1714-1782]. Nonetheless Salmon was bringing to the New World a different kind of skill and a link to well-established traditions.

After remaining briefly in New York, Salmon moved to Boston. Here he found work painting a signboard of a Native American, several backdrops in the Federal St. theatre and laboured on his own account upon public panoramas. In 1829 he exhibited eighty paintings in the rotunda of the new Quincy Market, including his large Boston panorama Boston Harbour from Pemberton Hill which measured 15 by 8 feet and included the twenty two islands in the harbour [Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities]. Pemberton Hill was the home of the planter Gardiner Greene [1753-1832] whose third wife was the daughter of the artist John Singleton Copley [1738-1815]. Their gardens were ‘the most conspicuous and elegant’ in Boston and the Advertiser called this large work ‘bold and effective’, displaying ‘taste, skill and patient labour’. In 1830 he exhibited The Bombardment of Algiers, another large work, announcing that the income from the tickets would be donated to the Medical Dispensary, thus doubling the publicity. This exhibition combined ‘deep interest and instruction’ and was praised as ‘elegant, brilliant and edifying’. Soon he returned to his small scale marine metier and established a livelihood while living alone in a small wooden studio on Marine Railway Wharf, with a bay window overlooking the harbour and views both up and down stream of the Charles river. Boston, like Whitehaven, was a booming place and Salmon prospered, in 1832 making 650 dollars from commissions for ship portraits. He watched the harbour grow as he laboriously ground his own colours and painted 300 works, often in the style of the 17thc Dutch paintings he had studied, employing a ‘low horizon’ and ‘clear sparkling light’ [website National Gallery, Washington].  His work was ‘skilful and learned’, giving evidence that he had travelled and seen fine pictures’ [William Howe Downes, biographer of Winslow Homer]. One new motif was that of a few figures rowing a dory in the foreground, adopted from William James Bennett [1783-1844], an émigré British watercolourist, based in New York. Salmon’s Massachusetts canvases include The Wharves of Boston [Old Boston State House]; islands in Boston Harbour such as the tiny Nixe’s Mate and Rainsford’s Island [Boston Museum of Fine Arts], then used for quarantining; Squantum Rock; Ships Leaving Boston Harbour [art market, 2000] and the magnificent Boston Harbour from Constitution Wharf [U.S. Naval Academy] which shows a large fully rigged vessel in light air being towed by two narrow skiffs, each with eight oarsman. The authenticity of dripping water from oar blades in the foreground was another motif he liked. This fine work is one of his very few paintings reproduced as a lithograph. Many of his other paintings were exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum alongside work by the ornithological artist John James Audubon [1785-1851] and the portraitists Gilbert Stewart [1755-1828] and William Dunlap [1766-1839]. For a short while, Salmon’s nephew John Salmon [b.c.1800] lived and studied with him.

Having sailing skills, in 1830 he traded paintings with Joseph Francis [1801-1893], the boatbuilder and pioneer of lifeboats, for a boat of his own and with John Lothrop [fl.1830-after 1872] for sails, enabling him to cruise round the harbour. Later he went sailing in a red cutter with his wealthy patron T. H. Perkins and ‘an English nobleman’, which suggests that he was on relaxed social terms with the most successful Bostonians. In 1835 he exhibited at the Corinthian Hall, which continued to show his work until 1844. Recognised with respect in the newspapers and by his patrons as one of the prominent marine painters of Boston, he also gained a reputation for being ‘eccentric, solitary and irascible’ []. Happily this roughness was not evident in his work but he was a man, who tended to call a spade a spade. 

In tandem with painting in oils, he provided mundane drawings from 1825-1836 for the lithographic studio of William S. Pendleton [1795-1879], a pioneer of lithographic art in America, such as The Commercial Tavern; Ticket for the Rifell [sic] Ball; Charlestown Yard and Dismal Swamp Canal. For Pendleton, he also collaborated with engravers such as James Eddy [1806-1888], who produced prints of The Certificate of Service for the Boston Fire Department [c.1833] after Salmon’s depiction of the fire of 1832 at the Old State House. His other subjects featuring conflagration were Ship on Fire, Whitehaven; and while in Boston, Fire at Parker’s Bookstall and Fire in State St. In 1832 he produced a drawing of a ship for a book but it ‘did not answer the purpose’. Further work in Boston was bought by numerous prominent residents, notably Col. Thomas Handasyde Perkins [1764-1854], a merchant, senator, philanthropist and major benefactor of Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Samuel Cabot [b.1784], a banker and member of one of the first families in Boston; John Perkins Cushing [1787-1862] a China merchant, known in the Far East as ‘Ku-Shing’ whose yacht Sylph in 1872 won the first recorded American yacht race; and Captain Robert Bennett Forbes [1804-1889], China merchant and philanthropist, who administered food aid during the Irish famine. In 1832 he painted Chelsea Ferry, Massachusetts for Henry H.W. Sigourney [1807-1874], a director of the ferry company: a work that also shows H.H.W.’s house. In 1836 he earned over $750, his peak of prosperity and in 1839 his catalogue records the completion of his thousandth painting. Many of his frames were supplied by the chief Boston frame maker John Doggett [1780-1857], perhaps at the behest of these plutocrats. Detailed panoramic views of wharves and shorelines were popular and he did not have much serious competition. Almost one third of the known Boston works demonstrate how he recycled scenes of Great Britain for purchasers, perhaps nostalgic for home, including View of Liverpool from Cheshire [1832; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts] and View of Greenock [1836]. Though much of his work featured naval and merchant vessels, he ranged more widely with subjects such as The Dream, Pleasure Yacht [1839], the atmospheric Smugglers by Moonlight [Harvard Art Museum] and South Sea Whale Fishing, the latter work not only demonstrating his imagination but reflecting his careful research.  

Salmon achieved meticulous and authentic detail of hull, spars and rigging and by using controlled and restrained colour he captured elusive qualities of light, often in the evening. He effectively captured the topographical details and several canvases show a careful appraisal of local geology such as Rafe’s Chasm, a striking cliff fissure at Magnolia, near Gloucester and Rocks at Nahant [Boston Museum of Fine Arts] both on the Massachusetts coast. Sometimes flags are prominent, such as a Union Jack, an admiral’s red ensign or maritime signal flags such as the ‘Blue Peter’, flown to signal preparation to leave port. His treatment of water is often rather choppy and stylised, but the overall impact of his work is considerable. One of his Boston works, depicting the Neponset river, south of the city, developed a blemish which he cleverly turned into a colourful hot air balloon, with one of two figures on the ground pointing to it. The inspiration for this detail may have been the early American balloonist John Wise [1808-1879], who was active from the 1830s. In 1839 Salmon was awarded the silver medal by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, in a sense a lifetime achievement award. During his time in Boston the only other full time artist was Washington Allston [1779-1843], a successful landscape painter, who lived at nearby Cambridge.  Among other younger aspirant artists were Alvan Fisher [1792-1863] and Thomas Doughty [1793-1856], both landscape painters; and Chester Harding [1792-1866] the portrait painter.

Return to Europe

In 1840 Salmon was still active in Boston and enjoying a comfortable living, but his doctor advised him to stop painting small detailed pictures, as his eyesight was failing. Accordingly, he arranged an auction of his work in 1842 and leaving his affairs in the hands of George Darracott, a local businessman, during that summer returned to Europe. At this date his paintings were praised for ‘a truth of outline and spirit in execution’ to the extent that ‘as a Marine painter Mr Salmon has never been excelled by any artist in this country’ [Boston Daily Advertiser].  His itinerary from that date is uncertain and it was assumed for many years that he had died in England c.1844.  However, he evidently visited Italy, as demonstrated by Il Molo, Venice and View of Venice [1845; Museo Thyssen Bornemisza], the latter work unusually showing a distant view of the Doge’s Palace, the great campanile and other principal buildings from far across the lagoon. Both these canvases bear his usual simple initials RS. Samuel L. Gerry, the critic in the New England Magazine had written how his work was ‘as distinctive as Canaletto in his speciality Venetian scenes’.  Had this awareness fed the notion of returning to Italian sources ?  Also in 1845, he travelled on to Sicily, painting View of Palermo, looking north towards Monte Pellegrino. George Loring Brown [1814-1889] who was born in Boston and trained with Washington Allston during Salmon’s peak of activity, spent many subsequent years in Italy and had also already painted Monte Pellegrino from a similar angle. Could Salmon have been in touch with him in Italy ?  It is known that he once chided Brown in Boston for not finding sufficient material for painting at home. After Sicily, Salmon’s movements are a mystery and his date and place of death, perhaps in Italy, have not yet been located.  

Salmon painted more than 1000 known canvases in oils; his fourteen years in America produced some of his finest work, now familiar in prominent public and private collections.  He was said in the late 20thc to be the ‘father of American maritime painting’ but in recent years has been described as the ‘father of American Luminism’ [Wilmerding, 1989]. This more specific accolade refers to his tranquil seascapes, characterised by subtle effects of light in hazy skies and reflections on water, canvases which influenced his followers, including Fitz Henry Lane [1804-1865] who had a particular affinity with Salmon’s pictures as is evident in Lumber Schooner at Evening at Penobscot Bay [1863; National Gallery of Art, Washington].  This underlines how this Whitehaven artist not only exported a British style to America but once there he facilitated the transformation of native artists. Apart from works in major British galleries, The Beacon Museum at his birthplace now has three examples of his work: The David Shaw; The Trelawny and A French Chasse-Marie Attacking a British Merchant Ship.


  • Charles D. Childs, Robert Salmon: A Boston Painter of Ships and Views, Old Time New England xxviii (January 1939), 90-92
  • Marshall Hall, Artists of Cumbria, 1979
  • Daniel Hay, Whitehaven: An Illustrated History, 1979
  • Henry Hitchings, Robert Salmon, The Proceedings of the Old Bostonian Society, 1895
  • Robert Salmon, His own ms Catalogue of Paintings 1828-1840, Boston Public Library, transcribed as Appendix A in Wilmerding [1971].
  • H.T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artists’ Life, 1867
  • John Wilmerding, A History of American Marine Painting, 1968
  • John Wilmerding, Robert Salmon: Painter of Ship and Shore, 1971
  • John Wilmerding, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1989
  • Boston Daily Advertiser, 9 October 1829
  • Boston Daily Advertiser, 18 and 25 June 1830
  • Boston Daily Advertiser, 6 June 1842
  • Whitehaven News 13 October 2010
  •   Rehs Galleries Inc., New York
  • art sales information
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington website