If it hadn’t been for a street poster showing a miserable couple in rainy England on one side and the same couple enjoying sunny Australia on the other, Bill Mearns and his wife Sheila might not call Hobart home. And that would have been Tasmania’s loss, because Bill Mearns creates extraordinary and evocative maritime paintings.
Originally from Dundee in Scotland, Bill, Sheila and their three young sons were living in the English Midlands, where Bill worked as a construction manager, before they came to Australia in 1970. It wasn’t an accident they ended up in Tasmania. Our spectacular coastline, with its numerous bays and inlets, meant Bill Mearns felt immediately at home. He didn’t miss Scotland at all. “If Scotland had Tasmania’s climate, it would be terrific!” he said. In Scotland, “You can be in a beautiful part of the country and not see your hand in front of your face.”
As a child he spent his school holidays in the fishing village of Ferryden, on the Scottish east coast, where his grandfather taught him to sail in a small rowing boat rigged with a sail. But sailing wasn’t his passion. With the fishermen’s houses in a row along the beach front, the boats at anchor in the river, and the rowing boats hauled up on the beach, the young Mearns spent much of his time drawing, captivated by the many boats and the changing sea.
Today, Mearns’ watercolours display a sophisticated approach to the sea in all of its attitudes, from the stillness of the river to the turbulence of the deep ocean. His use of light on the boats and ships he paints allows the viewer to focus not only on the beauty of the craft but also on the maritime detail of the vessel. His attention to detail shows in his extensive knowledge of the ocean and the vessels he paints.
“I keep in mind how the ship would be working, how the sails react to the wind, how the ship would be set, how the person who’s in charge of the vessel knows what they’re doing so the sails would be in a certain position, relative to the wind. I keep in mind where the light and the wind are coming from, and if there’s any indication in the water that it’s flowing in a certain direction.”
Despite the quality of his paintings, Mearns has had little formal training in art. Instead, he and Sheila have made several back to England and Scotland as well as to Scandinavian countries to attend exhibitions, view the coast and study numerous ports and ships.
One exhibition turned out to be invaluable. “We went to a Turner exhibition in London, which was of his unfinished work, work he might have started six or eight times to do a particular painting. You saw his construction of the painting, how he started it, just his procedure. It was like getting a lesson from Turner.”
Mearns spent a whole afternoon studying the exhibition. “It was more interesting than seeing the finished paintings.”
Bill Mearns also makes models of sailing ships, and they fill the family living room. “I’ve always made models, just from the point of view of being able to study the boats from all angles. Then I got more and more interested in the detail of them. It’s not a chore. I do it because I love doing it.”
A few years ago, Mearns was commissioned to paint the brigantine rigged sailing ship Eye of the Wind as it was rounding Cape Horn. He had never travelled around Cape Horn, although he had been on a cruise on the Eye of the Wind. In keeping with his attention to detail and his desire to create an authentic painting, he went to the State Library to study the largest maps of the cape that he could find. From these he gathered details about weather conditions, prevailing wind direction and any detail about how the vessel would react.
“In other words, try and get myself a mental picture of what it would be like,” he said. The resulting painting is a dramatic and accurate portrayal of the event.
Mearns’ knowledge of his subject matter is extensive. His abiding love of sailing ships and the ocean is evident in his paintings.
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Bill Mearns is a Fellow of the Australian Society of Marine Artists. His artwork is available at the Grand Chancellor Hobart and Saddler’s Court Gallery, Richmond, and can be viewed at marineartistsaustralia.com.au/bill-mearns. His work is also be part of the Australian Society of Marine Artists exhibition at the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, Argyle St, Hobart, until March 22, 2020. Also in 2020, from April until July, the Maritime Museum in Hobart will exhibit a Bill Mearns retrospective, which will include drawings, paintings, models and ships in bottles.