The most successful British marine painter of his age, Clarkson Stanfield drew directly on his own wide experience of the sea. Clarkson Stanfield was born in Sunderland on 3 December 1793, the son of the Irish actor and anti-slavery writer James Field Stanfield. In 1805, at the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to an heraldic painter in Edinburgh, but three years later became a merchant seaman, at work on a collier. In 1812, he was pressed into the Royal Navy, and spent two years on HMS Namur, the guard-ship at Sheerness. Following his discharge as the result of an injury, he again joined the merchant navy, and sailed to China, in 1815, in the East Indiaman Warley. On his return in 1816, he missed his ship and, taking the advice of the novelist Captain Frederick Marryat, turned to art.
Initially, he became a scene painter, first at the Royalty Theatre, Stepney, and later at the Royal Coburg, Lambeth. He was joined at the Royal Coburg by David Roberts, who became a close friend, and together, in 1822, they worked at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
During the 1820s, Stanfield developed as an exhibiting artist, while consolidating his position as the leading scene painter of the period. He showed landscapes and seascapes in oil and watercolour at major venues, including the Royal Academy, the British Institution, and the Society of British Artists (which he helped to found in 1824). His election as an associate member of the Royal Academy (1832) and then as a full academician (1835) helped confirm his reputation, and he gave up theatrical work to concentrate on painting, and also to illustrate. He augmented his views of British coasts by making regular visits to the Continent, especially to Venice (in the 1830s) and Holland (in the 1840s). In 1855, he won a First Class Medal at the Exposition Universelle, Paris. John Ruskin praised his skilful and accurate depiction of sea and sky, and the public generally preferred his degree of finish to the loose and suggestive manner of J M W Turner’s later years.
Stanfield moved in literary circles, and the large house in Hampstead, which was his home from 1847, became a meeting place for writers as well as artists. He developed a particularly close friendship with Charles Dickens, taking part in his private theatricals, both as actor and designer, contributing illustrations to some of his books, and accompanying him on travels. On his death, in Hampstead on 18 May 1867, a letter from Dickens was found beneath his pillow.