You know I love nautical paintings, and so I was amazed to find this stunning picture by British painter Richard Brydges Beechey not, as I usually do for this series, by searching through various art commons sites on the Web, but by stumbling across it on Wikipedia’s page for historical events that happened on today’s date, February 7. The Wreck of the HMS Orpheus depicts exactly what happened 153 years ago today, on February 7, 1863, off Whatipu Beach in the northern part of New Zealand. The HMS Orpheus was the flagship of the British Royal Navy’s Australian Squadron, and the ship, launched two years earlier, was a product of that very curious period in naval and shipbuilding history that marked the transition from sail to steam. In addition to typical sails Orpheus also had a steam engine. Neither form of propulsion did the ship much good as she sailed amongst the treacherous reefs and sandbars near Whatipu Beach. The Royal Navy had charts marking the newer positions of the sandbars which shifted over time, but unfortunately Orpheus‘s sailing master was using an outdated chart. On February 7 the ship hit one of the sandbars, tearing its hull open, and quickly sank. A total of 189 sailors, most of them teenagers, perished. The Royal Navy, not wanting to put the hat on one of its own, instead blamed the harbor pilot.
Sea disasters were great fodder for paintings in the mid-19th century, and the Royal Navy had a curious institution of documenting itself through art: some of its officers were painters. Richard Brydges Beechey was not a professional artist but rather a Royal Navy officer from a distinguished English seagoing family. His older brother was Frederick William Beechey, after whom Beechey Island in Canada–where the “ice mummies” of three British sailors who died in the 1840s are buried and still perfectly preserved–is named. Richard Beechey painted this scene of the Orpheus disaster in 1868. He eventually rose to the rank of admiral and died in 1895.
Incidentally, Whatipu Beach, near where the wreck occurred, is a famous “haunted place” in New Zealand, known not only for the Orpheus incident but various other spooky occurrences over the years. As recently as 2005 bodies of mysteriously vanished people have been found on the beach. The wreck of the Orpheus is still out there, protected under New Zealand law as an archaeological site. This particular painting hangs in the New Zealand National Maritime Museum.