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Strokes of Genius : Stowaway's Boat Ride 50 Years Ago Launched Glittering Career in Maritime Art of America

May 19, 1988|BETH CRAWFORD VINCENT | Beth Crawford Vincent is a free-lance writer who lives in Laguna Niguel.

John Stobart, 58, is a man who turns serious art into serious money, a feat he performs these days in the Balboa Fun Zone between trips on the Balboa Island Ferry.

For his particular brand of magic, Stobart uses a brush instead of a wand, and the results involve a blend of ships and harbors and his own ingenuity, all rooted in a ferry ride he took as a stowaway 50 years ago in England.

When the ferryboat's mate shouted, "Start your search," 8-year-old John Stobart hid behind a post on the upper deck, his heart pounding.

The Liverpool harbor before him was madly exciting. It smelled of salt and iron, steam and diesel fuel. And everywhere were the ships. He had to see it all.

But the coins in his pocket were not enough for another crossing.

The boy watched a crewman search the men's room for stowaways, but noticed the man didn't enter the ladies' room, just tapped once, yelled, "Anybody in there?" and went on his way.

So, all day young Stobart rode back and forth across the Mersey River free of charge, hiding briefly at the end of each crossing in a stall of the ladies' room.

He was a boy from the interior of Derbyshire on his first visit to the coast--an explorer, an adventurer out to conquer a new continent on a tall ship.

That day more than a half-century ago was the beginning of what John Stobart today calls "the marine thing," a calling that has brought him a goodly dose of fame, wealth, power and--sometimes--a cloudy dose of downright frustration.

Englishman Stobart has become the premier visual recorder of America's maritime history, a master of his art form and of the art business; currently, his brush is set on one of his home ports, Newport Harbor.

The Balboa Island Ferry glides into the Agate Street landing. John Stobart, 58, is a small man and quick. He bounds aboard, sketchbook tucked under one arm, and surveys the peninsula and the sky overhead. His eyes are rivets and his stance is James Cagney confident. And why not?

The spunky English boy who couldn't afford a 2-pence ferry crossing in 1937 is today the man whose original oil paintings of tall ships, steamships and river boats bring up to and sometimes more than $150,000 each.

His prints alone accounted for more than $2.5 million in sales in 1985.

His clientele makes up a distinguished roster (Betsy and Walter Cronkite own a Stobart; R.J. Schaeffer III, the beer tycoon, has several originals, and so does Charles Gulden, the mustard king). Stobarts are displayed in the New York headquarters of Dun & Bradstreet and the Connecticut National Bank. Recently, the Bank of California bought his original of the Flying Cloud sailing into San Francisco Harbor.

His "marine thing" that began gestating in the port of Liverpool hatched in 1967 when Stobart, newly arrived in America, was studying the collection of nautical prints at the New York Public Library.

He made a startling discovery.

Aside from a few paintings of Boston and New York harbors and a scattering of other lesser ports, the historic harbors of a whole continent had not been painted.

Stobart was ready for the challenge.

After graduation from the Royal Academy in London, he had spent years painting for shipping companies in England and in Canada. An exhibit of his paintings of ships at the Kennedy Gallery in New York had sold out in 1967, netting $144,000.

"It was the equivalent of a million at that time," Stobart said.

A continent lay before him, and he seized the opportunity. Becoming what he terms "a visual pioneer," he set out to paint the lost harbors and ships as they had been in the glory days of sailing. In the world of marine art, the name John Stobart soon became synonymous with vigor, historical accuracy and romantic realism.

But even though Stobart makes his home in Newport Beach for part of the year, his name in Orange County is not exactly a household word, at least not yet.

"When he first walked in and said he wanted to paint the Pavilion, I thought, 'Well, every artist in Orange County has painted this place. Some have painted it 20 times,' " said Phil Tozer, who bought and renovated the former dance hall on the bay front in 1969. "His name didn't ring any bell with me then."

Stobart wanted to paint the harbor and Pavilion as it was in 1911. Tozer helped with the meticulous research, then, as Tozer told it, "John went off into the sunset."

In a month or two Stobart returned with a producer, cameraman and a soundman to film his work-in-progress for public television. Tozer was duly impressed.

"I walked over to the producer and said, 'Who is this guy?' "

"Probably the most eminent maritime artist in the world," was the producer's terse reply. His response, by most accounts, is accurate.

How has John Stobart gained distinction and a fortune in the thorny field of oil painting where failure is practically a given? Stobart's Orange County collectors attest to a number of possibilities.

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