John Stobart, a British-born artist whose evocative, meticulously researched oil paintings of 19th-century harbors and tall ships earned him a reputation as one of the world’s foremost maritime painters, as well as millions of dollars, died on March 2 in Wellesley, Mass. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Anne Fletcher.
A product of Britain’s Royal Academy of Art, Mr. Stobart moved to the United States in 1970, when conceptual art, Op Art and minimalism were riding high in the wake of Abstract Expressionism.
Affable, unassuming and unfailingly candid, Mr. Stobart would have none of it. “I’ve never bought it, and the general public has never bought it either,” he said of abstract art in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1986. “That’s a lot of baloney, that stuff.”
Instead, he conjured the past as a master of richly detailed historical works brimming with schooners, brigs and sloops, their sails flapping under moody clouds, with shore lights twinkling in the distance.
Working out of studios in the Boston area, Martha’s Vineyard and several other locations, Mr. Stobart, who lived in Medfield, Mass., employed the same taste for exhaustive historical detail as Patrick O’Brian, the prolific Anglo-Irish author known for his bracing tales of naval heroics.
He left no detail to chance, traveling to the locations he painted, consulting old daguerreotypes of harbors and ships and going out to sea on various watercraft to learn the most arcane points about their engineering and behavior on the water.
“He went out on tugboats to find out how they would look in a storm,” Ms. Fletcher said in a phone interview. “He knew if the ship was being towed, there would be no slack in the line. He understood the movement of the water, the tides, the sun and the moon.”
Well-heeled patrons took note. Notable clients included Walter Cronkite and Charles Gulden of mustard fame. His work was displayed in European castles and corporate headquarters like Dun & Bradstreet, and at institutions like the American Merchant Marine Museum in Kings Point, N.Y., and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
From the beginning, Mr. Stobart had no interest in the starving-artist archetype. “I didn’t want to be typecast and wear sandals and a long beard just because I was an artist,” he told The Globe. “I wanted to succeed.”
Mr. Stobart was born on Dec. 29, 1929, in Leicester, England. His mother, Marguerite (Barrett) Stobart, died while giving birth to him, and as a baby he suffered from pyloric stenosis, a disorder of the stomach and intestines.
He survived three years in the hospital, and grew up in the landlocked Derbyshire countryside. But while visiting his grandmother in Liverpool when he was 8, “I saw the ships on the Mersey River,” he once recalled. “They blew my mind.”
His father, Lancelot Stobart, was a successful drugstore owner who rode his son hard over his academic failings (he once failed every subject but geography) and had no interest in young John’s artistic dalliances. “He told him, ‘You’ll never put bread on the table doing that,’” Ms. Fletcher said.
“I was not expected to be remotely successful by my father,” Mr. Stobart told The Los Angeles Times, “and I thought that I would make him eat his words.”
Eventually, his father relented, and sent him to the Derby School of Art, where he thrived, then gained admittance to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he drew praise for his landscapes.
He served in the Royal Air Force in the early 1950s. His father then sent him on an ocean liner to South Africa, where he grew fascinated with the minutiae of ships. Sensing a commercial opportunity in maritime art, he was soon making a living in England and Canada, painting by commission for shipping companies.
By the mid-1980s, he had written the first of his three books, “The Rediscovery of America’s Maritime Heritage,” and thanks in part to a lucrative operation selling first-edition prints, was making up to $2.5 million a year. In recent years, his originals were selling for $15,000 to $400,000 through the Rehs Galleries in New York.
In addition to his wife; he is survived by his daughters, Elizabeth Stobart and Diana Wild; his son, Bill, from his first marriage, to Kay (Arscott) Stobart; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Stobart showed no shame about his commercial acumen. Mr. Cronkite once compared his use of light to that of John Constable, the famed British landscape painter. Mr. Stobart deflected the compliment: “I think it’s way too illustrative, my work, and that’s because I’m trying to be a businessman and an artist.”
The one place his expertise in boats failed him was on the open seas.
“As a sailor, he was terrible,” his wife said. “Once, on Walter Cronkite’s yacht, he was told to tighten the sheet and John had no idea what Walter was asking. At other times, he would say, ‘What do you mean I have to read a map?’ Nobody wanted to get on a boat with him.”