7th February 2020
Local artist, former trawlerman, and STAND member Dennis Chapman came to visit us in the Maritime Museum for a chat about his life, his art, and Hull’s fishing heritage – and he had a lot of fascinating stories to tell! From running away from home and ending up at sea to having hundreds of paintings displayed all over the world, to say Dennis has had an eventful life would be an understatement.
It is particularly poignant as today marks the 95 years anniversary of the loss of the Field Marshal Robertson, sunk with all hands off the coast of Iceland on the 9 February 1925. Dennis was asked to produce a commemorative painting to be placed next to a plaque in Hafnarfjörður church.
“There’s no time for rest on a trawler”
This was to be the start of his seventeen year spell as a trawlerman; a career which by an ironic twist of fate would eventually lead Dennis to his current artistic endeavours. He kept up his drawing as much as he was able while at sea, along with taking photographs from atop the mizzenmast and even tying himself to a bar so he could lean out over the side of the ship and capture the perfect shot!
It was from atop a trawler’s mast – the James Barry, to be precise – that Dennis fell, landing badly on his back. This was in the midst of the Cod Wars between British and Icelandic fishermen, so a British gunboat was fortunately nearby to send across a doctor, who advised plenty of rest. As Dennis put it, “there’s no time for rest on a trawler”, so as soon as the doctor had left the James Barry, he was straight back to work!
It wasn’t until many years later – when he was no longer at sea, and worked as a lorry driver – that this would come back to bite him. It was the Christmas of 1983, and without warning, Dennis collapsed with all feeling below his waist lost. He was rushed to hospital, where the full extent of his injury was revealed; for years, including several at sea, he had been living and working with a broken back.
Doctors weren’t sure he would ever walk again – although Dennis says he was always certain he would! While the former sailor was recovering at home, his wife Wendy – herself the daughter of a trawler skipper – suggested he take up painting, buying him a canvas and a small set of paints to get him started.
Dennis had never painted before but, with both him and his canvas propped up on cushions, he began to compose his first work; the first of many. It was of a trawler called the Lord Nuffield, which sailed from Hull, and much to his surprise the painting was sold within a fortnight of completion, spurring Dennis on to continue his art during the long process of his recovery. Even injured, Dennis managed to enjoy a bit of excitement - he was given a girdle to help him walk again, but somehow broke it while doing a wheelie on a motorbike! The ex-trawlerman was surprised at how well his paintings were received; entirely unexpectedly, he saw a whole collection of them hanging in a pub he visited, and later came across postcards featuring his work.
His painting shows the ships caught in the stormy, icy waters off the northern coast of Iceland that would sadly spell their doom. The two trawlers met their tragic end in January 1955 in an act of selfless heroism – heading for shelter from a hurricane, they turned back into the storm to respond to a distress call from a third trawler, the Kingston Garnet, which at the time had a line tangled around her propeller. Unbeknownst to them, by the time they reached their destination the Garnet had already freed herself and reached safety, and the Roderigo and Lorella found themselves trapped, rapidly iced up and unable to turn around. Soon, both trawlers had capsized in the freezing sea. The picture, painted to commemorate the tragedy, normally hangs in St. John the Baptist’s Church, the ‘Fisherman’s Church’, next to a model of the former vessel – also built by Dennis with the help of a friend.
As a committee member of STAND – the St. Andrew’s Dock Heritage Park Action Group, a charity for the preservation of Hull’s fishing heritage and the memory of those lost as part of it – Dennis has painted a number of scenes to memorialise those lost in notable fishing tragedies.
Particularly poignant at the moment is that of the Field Marshal Robertson, sunk with all hands off the coast of Iceland on the 9 February 1925, 95 years ago.
The Robertson, along with a second ship named the Leifur Heppni – “Lucky Leif”, a reference to famed 10th century Norse explorer Leif Erikson – were the victims of a terrible storm that battered Iceland for days and claimed the lives of 79 people in total; 67 of those, of both Hull and Icelandic origin, on board the two ill-fated trawlers. A plaque with the names of those lost, donated shortly after the tragedy by the Hellyer Brothers – owners of the Robertson – and the Hull Steam Trawlers Mutual Insurance and Protection Company, hangs in the church of the Icelandic village of Hafnarfjörður, from where many of the Icelandic crew members hailed.
Dennis was asked to produce a commemorative painting by STAND, in preparation for their visit to Iceland and to the Hafnarfjörður church, which at the time had only the plaque by which to remember the victims of the storm. Now, beside the plaque, stands Dennis’ painting of the Robertson, and the Leifur in the background, crashing through the waves with the snowy mountains of Iceland behind them. A memorial service for the sailors lost on that day will be held in Hafnarfjörður on 9 February, and they will be remembered at the same time in St. John’s here in Hull.
An insight to his art
Dennis gave us a good insight into how he produces such accurate renditions of the vessels he paints, especially those that are no longer intact and accessible. With his extensive experience of trawlers, both serving on them and painting them, he knew exactly what the Leifur Heppni would look like as soon as he found out that it had been built in Selby. For the Robertson, he found existing blueprints of the Mersey class of minesweepers, converted from trawlers by the Royal Navy during the First World War – the Robertson had in fact served in this role under the name Jeremiah Lewis before its purchase in 1922 by the Hellyer Bros. of Hull. After his painting had been delivered to Iceland, an Icelandic delegation visited Hull and met with Dennis – one was particularly taken with a picture of the Icelandic gunboat Thor, which famously collided with a British frigate during the Cod Wars.
Dennis now paints both to sell commercially and to raise money for various charities, with great success. He recently raised £3,000 for the RNLI, and to thank him they took him and his family out on the lifeboats, an experience Dennis says was “the best day of his life”!
Asked if he had any plans to write down the details of his action-packed life story, he replied that he far preferred to represent reality through pictures; written memoirs often exaggerate and embellish, but his paintings tell their stories as they happened.
"I would go back to sea tomorrow"
After seventeen years packed with frightening, dangerous, and near-death moments, Dennis says he would go back to sea tomorrow if he could; although, having journeyed down to London to be present at the naming ceremony of the new Kirkella trawler and tour the ship, he remarked on how different it seemed to his own memories – fishing now, he says, is a life of luxury, where most of the crew never have to get their feet wet or even touch a fish! It might be apt to finish with a quote from Dennis himself, inspired, he says, by various books he’s read on the topic of the trawlers: “The man that goes to sea for a living goes to hell for pleasure”.
Our thanks go to Dennis Chapman and his story.