Christmas afloat

Saturday 12 December 2015

This will be my fifth year of sending out Christmas cards by email. It’s my way to cut the clutter that comes with the summer solstice.

This season’s card displays another sen­ti­mental picture from a Victorian illustrated magazine. Please enjoy more strange cus­toms (in­volving bunches of prickly and parasitic vegetation); more foreign places (England, in the 1890s); and more outmoded tech­no­logy (the rowing boat, the paddle steamer, the wood en­grav­ing).

‘Christmas Afloat’, wood engraving published in the 21 December 1895 issue of The Illustrated London News.

I am not sure who drew this charming picture, but there is a good clue. In the bottom left corner are the initials FWB​—​probably Frederick Wood Baker (1862–1936). Baker was a Londoner, and a painter of mari­time scenes set on the south coast of England.

The paddle steamer Mavis. [source]

When I went looking for pictures of paddle steamers that might have been the model for ‘Christmas Afloat’ I was struck by sim­il­ar­it­ies with the Mavis​—​a steamer built in 1888 that operated on the River Thames. Did Baker base ‘Christ­mas Afloat’ on sketches of this vessel?

I am puzzled by the story ‘Christmas Afloat’ is meant to tell. Where is the ship supposed to be? She is not under way​—​the paddle wheel appears to be stopped. The decks are not level, so I suppose the ship is rolling, perhaps at anchor in open water with a bit of a swell running. Is the ship waiting for crew or passengers to come out in a boat? Or a pilot? Could this be Christmas Eve, and the four men in the boat are bringing a special delivery of holly and mistletoe to decorate the saloon?

I don’t have answers to these questions, though it is pleasant to ponder them. I’ll leave you with the piece of verse that was printed with the picture. Let’s stand up and recite these lines in a strong clear voice:

Sing hey for the steamer afloat !
    Sing ho for the rudder and oar !
For here comes a brave little boat
    Abreast on the surf from the shore,

    With bunches of holly galore
And mistletoe fresh from the tree.
    The tempest may roar, but here is a store
Of greetings for Christmas at sea.

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