How are a nation’s limits defined? Borders, as is increasingly evident in our current geopolitical climate, are notoriously problematic sites, never as simple or straightforward as a line on a map. And when the border in question concerns a coast, subject to the persistent shifts of erosion and tides, the situation is even less clear. In the face of this uncertainty, images can serve to visually secure a nation’s vulnerable edges. Thomas Somerscales, an English artist who lived in Valparaiso from 1869–1892, brought a British maritime sensibility to the depiction of Chile’s coasts, producing a vision of the nation’s territorial waters that resonated with collectors and patrons and continues to offer a way of seeing Chile today.
Born in Kingston-upon-Hull in 1842, Somerscales worked as a teacher at sea, traveling the world aboard a British Royal Navy ship (1). He decamped in Chile in 1869 due to illness and stayed in the country for two decades. While teaching at the Artizan English School in Valparaiso (2), he took up landscape painting as a hobby, giving him formative training in the study of topography. He developed an intimate familiarity with the geological features of Chile’s terrain, visible in images like Cordillera at Sunset, from 1885 (fig.01). Depicting the high summits of Chile’s coastal mountain range, the painting casts the foreground boulders in the reddish hue of sunset, while also highlighting the more distant, snow-capped peaks in the background. Somerscales displayed careful attention to geology in this image, tracing the irregular jutting of the volcanic landscape. He further included a self-portrait as a “muleteer” in the foreground, accompanied by a small dog. Cloaked in the pink glow of sunset, the artist nearly disappears into the boulder behind him. In these early paintings, Somerscales immersed himself in the ground of his adopted country—a ground he would later mobilize in order to anchor the vulnerable bay of Valparaiso’s port to a distinctive Chilean coast.
(1) Biographical aspects and information about the work of Somerscales were obtained from Alexander Hurst, Thomas Somerscales, Marine Artist: His Life and Work (Brighton, Sussex: Teredo Books, 1988).
(2) In 1877 Somerscales moved to a The Mackay School, where he continued to paint and teach.
In later years, Somerscales repeatedly painted a view of Valparaiso, taken from the summit of a hill on the city’s southwestern edge, near his home. Evening Mood at the Bay of Valparaiso (no date, fig.02) is just one of many examples, suggesting this view was especially popular with Somerscales’ patrons. The compositional angle nestles the bay, and its boats, between two thick swaths of ground, the green vegetation of the foreground and the rosy-hued mountains of the background. Visually enclosing the bay in this way offers an illusion of security. As a counter to the porous uncertainty of the coastline, susceptible to invasion, Somerscales conjures the solidity of soil and stone. This enclosure of the city’s open harbor reoccurs in The Chilean Squad (1889, fig.03), a painting that visually aligns mountain peaks and ships’ masts. Drawing on his earlier studies of mountainous topography, Somerscales shores up the scattered ships of the nation’s arsenal with its awesome landscape. These gestures, combining a nation’s land and sea resources, speak to the concept of “territorial waters,” a term that describes the distance to which state sovereignty extends into the sea. Somerscales’ images give tangible form to this invisible boundary.
A nation’s bounds are never more critical than in wartime, and Somerscales’ depictions of naval battles make this especially visible. Demand for scenes of naval battles increased precipitously as Chile went to war with Peru in 1879; images in this case offering the strength of the nation’s navy, not just in securing the existing coastline but in acquiring new territory. One of the most historically significant of Chile’s naval battles, the Battle of Iquique, figured repeatedly in Somerscales’ oeuvre, even after he had returned to England (fig.04). In a 1913 rendition, the Chilean Esmeralda and the Peruvian Huáscar are set head to head off the coast of what was then Peru. While Chile would lose this battle, it was a victory for patriotism. The brave self-sacrifice of Captain Arturo Prat led to an influx of naval inscription, the formation of a national holiday (Día de las Glorias Navales) and eventual victory in the War of the Pacific. The reddish coastline that frames the ships in Somerscales’ painting, with its steep, jagged face, recalls the artist’s earlier vision of the Cordillera, seeming to visually claim Iquique for Chilean territory—as indeed, it became, with the conclusion of the war, and as it was already when Somerscales painted the image in 1913. Landscape here conveyed more than just the site of the battle; it could be used to visually encode and naturalize the acquisition of new territory, just as it could preserve and protect the nation’s existing bounds.
Awarded medals by the state (including a silver medal at the 1872 National Exhibition in Santiago) and acquired by Chilean national collections, Somerscales’ paintings are an accepted and endorsed picture of Chile’s terrain. His images, drawing on a long tradition of British maritime representation concerned with visually patrolling a porous coastline, rendered the nation’s limits both visible and seemingly secure.
Kelly Presutti has a Ph.D in History, Theory and Art and Architecture Criticism from MIT (2017). The author is currently working on a book that considers the relationshipo between visual representation and territorial manangement in Post-Revolution France, maitaining as a secondary interest maritime topics and English hydrography.