J.J. Sempill - the artist who painted Derry’s sailing ships

The McCorkell family commissioned oil paintings of many, but not all, ships which sailed under the McCorkell flag from 1834 to 1897. Joseph Joshua Sempill painted the Minnehaha in its full glory as a passenger carrying clipper, with three sets of full sails. Oil painting on canvas 24' x 36', signed J. Sempill (Courtesy of John McCorkell - 120612JC3)
The McCorkell family commissioned oil paintings of many, but not all, ships which sailed under the McCorkell flag from 1834 to 1897. Joseph Joshua Sempill painted the Minnehaha in its full glory as a passenger carrying clipper, with three sets of full sails. Oil painting on canvas 24' x 36', signed J. Sempill (Courtesy of John McCorkell - 120612JC3)
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Derry’s rich maritime history has been making headlines this week, with the International Clipper Homecoming attracting thousands of visitors. However, few people know that during the late 1800s, a little-known marine painter called Joseph Joshua Sempill captured the beauty and elegance of Derry’s sailing ships through many oil paintings. Local genealogist and regular ‘Journal’ contributor Brian Mitchell explores this artist and his art...

It was Eric Ruff, curator and director of the Yarmouth County Museum, Nova Scotia, Canada who first brought to the attention of Sam Davidson, marine art consultant to leading auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, that one of the paintings in their collection, of “the barque Lois of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia entering Belfast Lough”, was signed “Josha Sempill Derry & Belfast 1876”.

Joseph Joshua Sempill created this painting of The Hiawatha, also owned by Derry shipbuilding company McCorkell & Co, in 1892. The Hiawatha was sold in 1897 and sunk by enemy action in 1916. (Courtesy of McCorkell Line)

Joseph Joshua Sempill created this painting of The Hiawatha, also owned by Derry shipbuilding company McCorkell & Co, in 1892. The Hiawatha was sold in 1897 and sunk by enemy action in 1916. (Courtesy of McCorkell Line)

At least 65 ship portraits, painted by marine artist Joseph Joshua Sempill, have been identified by Sam in private and museum collections on both sides of the Atlantic which include museums in Canada such as New Brunswick Museum (Saint John), Yarmouth County Museum (Nova Scotia) and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax (Nova Scotia) and institutions in USA such as Maine Maritime Museum at Bath (Maine), Camden Public Library (Maine), and the Vallejo Gallery at Newport Beach (California).

Sempill’s paintings of sailing ships and steamships, with numerous colour reproductions, have now been catalogued together with a chapter on ‘Londonderry’s Unique Contribution’ in Marine Art & Ulster: A Chronicle of Sail, Sea & Flag Codes by A S Davidson (published by Jones-Sands Publishing, Wirral, England, 2005).

This book is, in effect, a tribute to the work of J. J. Sempill, Ulster’s first successful residential ship portrait painter.

The McCorkell family commissioned oil paintings of many, but not all, ships which sailed under the McCorkell flag from 1834 to 1897.

Another of Sempill's paintings, entitled 'The British barque Village Belle calling for a pilot off Belfast Lough', is Oil on canvas 18" x 27" and signed J Semple. (030712JC7)

Another of Sempill's paintings, entitled 'The British barque Village Belle calling for a pilot off Belfast Lough', is Oil on canvas 18" x 27" and signed J Semple. (030712JC7)

Oil paintings were produced of the following McCorkell Line ships: Caroline, Erin, Harvester, Hiawatha, Minnehaha, Mohongo, Osseo, Oweenee, Village Belle and Wenonah. The Song of Hiawatha by H W Longfellow was a source of inspiration in the naming of many of the McCorkell ships, including their flag ship the Minnehaha.

Two of the McCorkell commissions, Minnehaha and Village Belle, were painted by Joseph Joshua Sempill. He painted the Minnehaha in its full glory as a passenger carrying clipper, with three sets of full sails. The Minnehaha was converted to a barque, about 1880, by the removal of the third set of full sails.

The Village Belle, a “well-built able little barque”, carried passengers from Derry to Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York for twenty-five years.

Interestingly, Sempill painted the Minnehaha and Village Belle, “in full sail with the main ‘course’ in the process of being furled”, as they entered Belfast Lough, off Whitehead, even though they operated out of Derry on Lough Foyle.

Belfast Harbour Commissioners also own two paintings of cross channel paddle steamers, attributed to Joseph Joshua Sempill, namely Prince Patrick and the Princess of Wales.

Although born in Scotland, c. 1830, and brought up in Belfast, Joseph Joshua Sempill made Derry his home when he married Rachel Griffith, the daughter of William Griffith, a Dublin-born gunsmith of Ferryquay Street, in St Columb’s Cathedral on 21 June 1869.

In his marriage certificate the officiating clergyman entered the bridegroom’s name as Joshua Semple but he signed his name as Josua Sempill! This is a lesson for all family history researchers, in conducting research you should always be aware of the possibility of different spellings of the same surname. You will find that in the context of Irish historical records there are many spelling variations of the same name.

It is also interesting to note that in his paintings prior to his marriage in 1869 he often signs his surname as ‘Semple’ but subsequently as ‘Sempill’.