For today’s OPA Blog, we are sharing a short history of John Stobart OPAM provided by Rehs Gallery of NYC. John’s life speaks of a lifelong dedication to developing a tremendously successful path in Art that transcends generations, and whose career has had a positive impact upon so many of the artists of today and tomorrow.
We admire his spirit and celebrate his legacy.
John Stobart OPAM Bio
John Stobart’s start in life was quite unexpected. His mother died when she was seven months pregnant, making her unborn child’s chance of survival uncertain. Nonetheless, the baby lived, and soon joined his older brother George and his father in their modest home in Allestree, an attractive village north of the county town of Derby, England.
The Stobart brothers were very close. Although only eighteen months older than John, George was a willing guide to all the intriguing wonders of the area around their home. They even ventured to Kedleston Hall, home to the aristocratic Curzon family, whose residence in Derbyshire dates back to the 1150s. To the twentieth-century Stobart brothers, Kedleston Hall must have seemed like a vision out of a storybook. In later years, John would return often to paint the breathtaking setting and elegant stately home.
It was not until 1938, when Stobart was eight years old, that he first met his mother’s family. Meeting his grandmother, who lived in suburban Roby, also marked a turning point in his young life. The tram that stopped at the end of her street traveled directly to the Pier Head in Liverpool. By the time he was twelve, Stobart was allowed to board the tram on his own and get off when he reached the end of the line. His first trip to the docks left him in awe of the vast number, sizes and types of ships that he could see. In talking about that magical day now, he recognizes it as “a life-changing day”.
The happy days in Liverpool and Weston Underwood would soon be interrupted however. News of Hitler’s invasion of Poland arrived in early September 1939. “And then all hell broke loose.” John and George were soon evacuated to Amber Valley Camp to keep them safe from harm. Amber Valley Camp was largely rural and very appealing for young boys. Stobart spent his spare time drawing as he had from a young age, and gradually began to expand his repertoire to include the design of three-dimensional objects during breaks from school.
By late summer of 1945, Stobart had completed his studies at Derby School and was pleased to learn that he was admitted to Derby College of Art without even being required to take an entrance exam. This was perhaps the first of many “strokes of luck” as Stobart calls them—an unexpected opportunity that would subsequently shape his career as an artist. He began studying with the painter Alfred Bladen. The curriculum at the College was based on the traditional academic program of studying drawing first, then painting, and finally painting from a live model. Stobart was thoroughly enjoying himself; rather than struggling with his studies, he was now in his element. Coursework was supplemented with visits to museums and galleries in Birmingham, and it was there that Stobart was inspired by the work of John Constable. The years at Derby College of Art provided a solid foundation for the young artist’s career.
Stobart finished his studies at the College of Art in 1950 and left for London to pursue his art education at the Royal Academy Schools that fall. After two years of studying, Stobart left to fulfill his compulsory National Service as a radar specialist with the Royal Air Force. By 1955, he was back in London finishing his studies at the Royal Academy Schools.
Not far from the school was the Burlington Arcade, a center for luxury shops and, more importantly, the J. A. Tooth Gallery. Tooth specialized in equestrian paintings, but he and Stobart had become friends when the artist became a regular visitor to the gallery. Eventually, Stobart brought Tooth a few of his paintings to review, and on one occasion he left two of them in the gallery. The next day, the RA school’s porter interrupted him during life drawing class to say that Tooth wanted him to come to the gallery immediately. One of Tooth’s clients had taken an interest in his painting of a tugboat on the Thames and wanted to purchase it. That client was John Meadows Marsh, Q.C. of Toronto, who was in town for only a short time; despite the briefness of their encounter, the two men formed a bond that would eventually lead Stobart to Canada and the beginnings of his professional career.
During Stobart’s years at school in London, his father had made a major change in his own life, marrying again and moving to Bulawayo in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He informed his son of these developments, inviting him to visit and sending a ticket for the trip. Stobart set out for his first ocean voyage. In addition to seeing much of Africa and many seas, the voyage provided Stobart with a detailed understanding of how ships function on a daily basis. He returned with a plethora of oil sketches from the numerous ports he had visited on his voyage.
During his time in Africa, it occurred to him that British shipping companies might be interested in paintings that portrayed their ships in exotic port cities. Back in London, he put this idea into action, obtaining a set of plans for the ship Braemar Castle, and one month later, presenting the finished painting of the vessel in the harbor of Mombasa to the Union Castle Line. Within days he had a sale. This strategy would serve Stobart well for many years; he painted for several British and Canadian shipping companies, first on speculation, but soon on commission.
During these early years of his career, Stobart also made his first trip to Canada, where he stayed with John Meadows Marsh, Q.C., the collector who had purchased his painting at J. A. Tooth’s Gallery. While in Toronto, Stobart also contacted the Maritime Museum in the hope of learning more about sailing ships from earlier eras. Alan Howard, curator of the museum, was familiar with the artist’s work and the two men soon became close friends. Howard introduced Stobart to the history of clipper ships and other sailing vessels, and taught him how the intricate rigging of each type of ship was used under variable weather conditions. His research confirmed his own sense that it was time for a new direction in his work. Turning to the sailing vessels of earlier centuries gave him more scope for his work.
In 1966 Howard recommended that Stobart make a trip to New York where there were abundant galleries and a much larger art market. On his train ride down the Hudson, he was joined by a commuter who clearly did not want to talk, so Stobart began to review his black & white photographs of the paintings that he wanted to show the art dealers in New York. At that point, his companion took an interest and the men began a conversation about galleries in New York. By the time the train arrived at Grand Central Station, Stobart had recommendations to visit four galleries that might be interested in his work. When he looked at the business card that his traveling companion handed him, he realized that he had been talking with Donald Holden, the editor of American Artist magazine. This surprising “stroke of luck” would introduce Stobart to the New York art world with a recommendation from one of its central figures.
Following Holden’s advice, Stobart headed directly to the Kennedy Galleries. The gallerist working that day was interested enough in his work to suggest showing it to Rudy Wunderlich, the owner of the gallery. Wunderlich was equally impressed. Although he specialized in Western art Wunderlich also dealt in maritime paintings and Stobart’s pieces appealed to him. He asked if Stobart could create twenty-five paintings in time for an exhibition in six months; naturally, the answer was yes.
His exhibition at Kennedy Galleries opened right on schedule and his career as a maritime painter was securely launched in the US.
Eight months after arriving in New York on the train from Toronto, Stobart returned to London where he continued to develop his knowledge of sailing history as well as his reputation as a maritime painter. Not surprisingly, he found himself drawn to the Thames waterfront but also to the architecture that lined its banks. Stobart realized that there was an opportunity to take on the task of painting American ports based on whatever archival etchings, lithographs of photographs were available; and in the late 1960s, he “challenged himself to recreate faithful impressions of specific ports at specific times.”
By 1970, Stobart moved to the US. Shortly thereafter, he developed a problem with his eyes and was hospitalized briefly. Stobart explains that this unfortunate event introduced him to a fellow patient named Bob Gregory, who became a close friend and informal advisor on settling in the US. Gregory asked him to house-sit his 13-bedroom mansion in Long Neck Point, Connecticut during the winter months when he typically lived in warmer locations. Having the security of a rent-free—and quite glamourous—place to live gave Stobart time to get his green card and begin to settle into the arts community in New York City; in particular, the Salmagundi Club in Greenwich Village. During this period, he also began to make regular trips to Mystic Seaport. The working shipyard there not only provided an opportunity to study the construction of historical vessels, but also the techniques employed by related trades such as barrel-making and rope-making. Stobart described it as a “sensational” education in all of the components of building a sailing ship.
Stobart’s reputation as a maritime painter grew steadily during the 1970s and 1980s. He explored new historical subjects such as whaling ships and also began to paint the harbors of smaller port cities such as Darien. Eventually, he broadened his scope of subjects even further, including the port cities along the great rivers of the US and the Great Lakes. It was at this juncture that his friend Bert Wright, a British marine artist, invited Stobart to join him in painting outdoors, following the example of John Constable’s practice of making oil sketches on site. Smaller in scale and more spontaneous than the carefully planned canvases of sailing ships, these plein air paintings have become a mainstay of Stobart’s work since then.
Nature had long served to both inspire and educate Stobart in his work, and his return to plein air painting reminded him of the importance of studying on site. To encourage young artists in this endeavor, he established the Stobart Foundation in 1988. The statement of purpose for the Foundation is very clear. “The Foundation realizes the seminal step for an artist to move from student to professional occurs when each artist learns to use passion and sensitivity to shape the technical skills mastered as a student into a mature and independent visual language recognizable as one’s own. This imperative step is unfortunately most frequently encountered just after leaving the protective environment of the program, and before the artist has a body of work able to be self-supporting in the professional art world. During this time of transition, with the least time and energy available to the fledgling artist to give the required focused attention on this important development, many deserving young artists turn to other methods and opportunities in order to make ends meet.”] To date, the Foundation has provided over 100 fellowships.
Stobart’s plein air work also gave rise to his involvement with the Public Broadcasting System’s Worldscape series in 1992. The premise was that Stobart and some of his fellow artists would demonstrate plein air techniques in the hope of encouraging people to paint landscapes. There were thirteen programs per year, each one lasting two hours.
At the same time, Stobart continued to create large canvases depicting sailing ships in the harbors of the world. Occasionally, he would select a specific historical incident as the subject—San Francisco, The Gold Rush Harbor by Moonlight, 1851 is one example. The scene captures the intensity of 781 vessels jockeying for a position in Yerba Buena Cove during the height of the California Gold Rush. The moonlight on the sails and water is both elegant and romantic, but the painting also hints at the absurdity of so many ships crammed together like cars in a parking lot during a holiday sale. In fact, it captures the spirit of the Gold Rush succinctly.
Although the demand for Stobart’s paintings has grown consistently over the decades, he also recognized that limited edition prints of similar scenes would allow more people to collect his work. With that in mind, Stobart developed a series of prints and eventually opened his own gallery in Salem, Massachusetts. As with the paintings, there is a range of subjects from historical harbor scenes to contemporary landscapes and cityscapes. Likewise, Stobart began to publish large format art books featuring his work.
Over the years, Stobart was able to purchase several residences that were well-suited to his painting. It was in Boston that he met Anne Fletcher at an “exercise place” in 1984. The story he told is that her yellow dress caught his eye, but the dozen roses he sent her the next day suggests that he was fascinated by more than the color of her dress. The couple were married in 2020 and lived in Westport, Massachusetts.
Stobart continued to paint into his 90s, but he also focused on another publication as well as providing educational opportunities through his Foundation. In a letter to a relative in England, he explained his profound commitment to the work of the Foundation, particularly his belief that setting an example for young artists offers encouragement and wisdom about the process of building a career. “New projects arise out of my special mission to explain my pathway to success, which has been somewhat unbelievable but needs explanation. What I need to leave behind is a pathway to success which would be advantageous, informative, and encouraging to students who find themselves in a similar position to the one I was able to get through. And to demonstrate how they can enjoy every minute of the process. In other words, I hope to build their confidence.” Stobart’s optimism and his faith in the “strokes of luck” that came his way belied the reality that his gift for recognizing opportunity and his curiosity about the world were at least equally important to his long and successful career. John Stobart died on March 2, 2023, at the age of ninety-three.
Article written by Howard Rehs of Rehs Galleries, Inc.