Cobles in Art & Antiques

Celebrating the Northumbrian coble and Yorkshire cobble in popular culture

Half hulls & dioramas

The sheer beauty of the coble's sweeping lines makes it the most picturesque of all boats to display as a half hull. 

Such half hulls are highly decorative pieces of maritime art in their own right and - because of the striking combination of shape, colour and painted backboards - are unique to the North East and Yorkshire.

These coble antiques fall neatly between being half hulls (also known as a half blocks, half models and split hulls) and dioramas (also known as diaramas, diarames and in the US, shadow boxes or shadowboxes).

Half hulls arose back in the days of sail when shipwrights made models of the ships and boats they intended to build as a quick means of laying down and trimming the lines of a vessel (design), calculating the quantity of timber and other resources needed (accounting), providing a shape upon which detailed drawings and schedules could be based (production) and, last but not least, convincing the prospective owner that he was spending his money wisely (marketing).

Half hulls quickly became 'de rigeur' in shipyard models from around the late 1700s because, by concentrating on only one side of a hull, shipwrights not only saved time and money but also assured their clients that the finished craft would be truely symetrical - critical if it was to track straight and true - because the curved lines, profiles and sectional shapes from one side could simply be inversed to provide those accurate for t'other.

How all of this applies to the half hull dioramas illustrated here is open to conjecture because it's well known that cobles were built by 'sight of eye' without models or drawings.

Indeed, a TV documentary some years ago visited a Scandinavian boatyard that produced inshore clinker-built fishing boats similar to sailing cobles using only the inherent knowledge of the shipwright, a small selection of handheld tools and a small plumb level device that dictated the angle of each individual plank (or strake) as it was hammered home.

It can only be surmised that because half hulls of much larger vessels were so prevalent in Victorian shipyards and ship owners' offices, that their highly decorative nature also appealed to the proud coble owner who wanted their boat displayed above the mantelpiece, and so commissioned the builder or a local artist or craftsperson to produce it. 

Given that money was always 'tight' in a fishing community such commissions were quite an undertaking, especially when money could have gone in replacing vital missing or broken gear!  See also Dewdrop & Buttercup (page bottom).

Cobles not only inspired fishermen but also motivated wealthy Victorian shipowners to build and maintain 'racing' versions, and a large half hull example of these streamlined vessels is Favourite (left).

It is very much a 'Rolls Royce' of a half hull and money has been lavished on it's production. It shows the coble off either Sunderland or Seaham (it's registration is 53S) surrounded by, presumably, the owner's considerable fleet of colliery brigs and his most recent addition - a steamship centrestage! Another 'racing coble' (2W), a superbly constructed, planked cased model - presented to Captain Wheel RN - can be seen in the Models gallery. Both Favourite and  2W are highly decorated in gilt, as I suspect were the real boats.

In fine art terms, the half hulls illustrated here (such as Spring, right, from the Discovery Museum) can be described as being folkart, naive or primitive, although some were evidently painted by professional artists - who may or may not have carved the 'notorious to achieve' coble shape.

It should be noted that all antique coble half hulls are carved in wood 'out of the block or solid' and are not planked in construction as are the finer (museum quality) full bodied models. Modern reproductions are generally resin-based.

Almost all the coble half hulls (antique or otherwise) are coloured, numbered, named and are usually set against a painted background depicting either a specific harbour or beach scene. 

Sometimes they are screwed to blank painted backgrounds such as Robert (left) from the Discovery Museum and 59H(below),  the black and white double-ended pilot coble from Hartlepool Maritime Museum, although this may be a modern backing

Very rarely are they found cased, as are virtually all other maritime dioramas. Examples here are Lily (extreme top) and the Norah Evelyn (below). Both are by the same hand and represent Filey boats, set against the same bay and having the same painterly finish.

Norah Everlyn is a late Victorian double ended cobble (note the spelling south of the Tees) or yawl (or as the locals used to say, yall) circa 1880. The Brigg on the left and Flamborough lighthouse up on the limestone cliffs to the right. Cargo steamships and trawlers on the horizon. She's dressed out in white and blue, and is as pretty as a picture!

Antique coble half hulls generally fall within three size levels - the largest around 28x14ins (70x35cms), average 24x10ins (60x25cms) and small 18x9ins (45x23cms) - perhaps the size being dictated by the availability of wood panels as used in doors and furniture.

A note should be added about the framing. There are two distinct styles. 'Traditional' as used in framing a canvas and another, perhaps unique to the north east, where a very narrow frame profile sits directly on top of the wood backing panel.

In such cases the hanging rings are usually found screwed to the top in much the same way they are found on small minatures (see Antares below).

 Antares No2 is thought to be a very early coble half hull. It is particularly fine, well carved and almost double the size of all others shown here, although its backboard is about average size. Note the early detail of sunbursts in the corners.

It bears a striking similarity to the coble featured prominently in George Balmer's oil Cullercoats.

This painting was commissioned by William Francis Finden and later published between 1836-42 as a steel line engraving in Finden's Ports and Harbours of Great Britain (below).

It seems reasonable to suggest that both half hull and painting represent the same boat and perhaps, following the commercial success of the engraving, it was commissioned in 'celebration' by the owner, artist or publisher.

Antares' subdued dressing is perhaps painted to accurately portray varnished and pitch painted timbers - bearing in mind that the actual coble may have started it's working life in the late 1700s.

Condition varies enormously among these half hulls, some of which are now more than 150 years old. Some of the paint used in the past containes pitch which has since bubbled. Varnish has also yellowed, often to the point where the background scene cannot be deciphered.

Because they were often hung above open fires in homes and pubs, they can be smoked and their paint layers scorched. If so, the top layers are invariably friable in texture. And because of their age, they can also be scratched, rubbed and/or cracked.

 

 

If you are lucky enough to own one of these unique artworks then please treat it with respect. Get it professionally cleaned and repaired so that it may continue to 'warm the cockles of many a heart' for a further 150 years!

It may be of interest to note that George Featherstone, co-founder of the Coble & Keelboat Society wrote a short piece about half hulls in the society's Journal (see Coble Research).

 

 His words sum up what many feel about these fine artworks.

'I suppose that's perhaps what appeals most to us now about such models, however artlessly executed. They show us some extremely beautiful boats long after the originals were scrapped and it's great that (such) beauty has survived.'

 

Pathfinder (below) dated 1903 is inscribed BH14 indicating it was registered at Blyth, Northumberland.

This half hull, from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich is identified as being in the style of the late 19th century artist Joseph Fannen.

Fannen was known as a ship portrait painter on the north east coast working chiefly in Newcastle upon Tyne. Another similar half hull (but signed JC 1906) can be see on the Home page.

Pathfinder's dimension's are 72x461x447mm and it's backboard 445x772x25mm.

 

In totality, the half hulls here are unusual in that they represent a fishing boat and it's not often that Victorian fishermen had spare money available to commission such works, but cobles inspire lots of love and respect which is why it is rare to find other fishing boats given the same treatment.

However, one has been found even though it is a one-off, being paid probably by group subscription given it's raison d'etre. Nevertheless, it is most appealing and perhaps its creation was inspired by coble versions from further up the coast.

Dewdrop & Buttercup (right) depicts two fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank.

Inscribed at the top 'Presented to Albert Stanley Betts; skipper of the vessel Dewdrop for his fortitude and bravery in the rescue of the crew of the Buttercup after she had floundered off Dogger Bank, 11 Nov.1901.'    

Rounding off this gallery is a MOST unusual mid-19th century oil on canvas painted to look like a half hull. Named Sea Harvest (left) it is owned in Tynemouth and sits alongside another intriguing half hull called Eve (below) with the registration letters SN for Shields North!