A marine painter in oil and watercolour, influenced by the Romanticism of Turner and such plein air watercolourists as John Varley, Samuel Owen spent most of his life at sea as a Captain and ‘drawer’ for the East India Company. He was known for his romantic approach, and inspired by seventeenth century Dutch marine art, for his concern with atmosphere and composition. Samuel Owen was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex, to Mary and Samuel Owen, a sailor. Baptised on 1 February 1769 at St John the Baptist, Samuel was the fourth of seven children and the Owens’ third son. Little is known about his early life or education. However, his mother was married for a second time, in 1774, to Charles Ezard of Old Brentford, suggesting that his father may have died before he was five years old. Despite the death of Owen’s father so early in his life, the tradition of their seafaring family was to influence the formative direction his life would take when he joined the Royal Navy in 1788.
Owen was signed aboard HMS Phoenix, giving his address as 22 Chapel Row, Portsea, Hampshire, where he had been living with his sister, Sarah. Setting sail in November 1788, the ship headed first for the East Indies, arriving in Rio de Janeiro in May 1789 and then, after a period of uncharted voyage, docked at Ceylon in October 1789.
Though records are unclear, Owen returned to London in 1790 aboard an East India Company ship, the Nottingham, and later that year he was listed as living at Oxford Street. As he settled in London, it seems that he was able to devote time to painting. His earliest watercolours of rural shore scenes signed and dated 1790 bear the influence of John Varley and prominent watercolourists of the period.
On 20 June 1790, the Banns of his marriage were announced at Christ Church, Spitalfields, to Susannah Smith, the daughter of a local bricklayer. However, they did not marry until 18 February 1791, after Owen had returned from his voyage to Jamaica on board HMS Le Caesar. Owen documented the voyage with an impressive trompe l’oeil medley composition, a central watercolour of HMS Le Caesar in convoy on its way to Jamaica, enclosed by eight cards, each marking tradesmen, medals and coats-of-arms. Now in the British Museum, it not only marks Owen’s place in the strong tradition of souvenir art amongst British sailors but also a period of personal focus on naval battle subjects.
Little is known of Owen after his return from Jamaica. However, it was not long before he returned to sea again. He joined HMS Amphitrite at Woolwich on 1 February 1793, giving his address at Caernarvon, Wales – where he is believed to have fathered an illegitimate child. The HMS Amphitrite travelled to Portsmouth where Owen joined HMS Princess Royal, part of a squadron of ships to be based off the coast of Toulon, bombarding France with cannon fire. On 24 September after a gun exploded on board, Owen was admitted to hospital in the Naval Dockyard Gibraltar. In Gibraltar on 11 April 1794, he made a final will, perhaps indicating that he thought the end of his life was near. In it he stated that he was from Wales and bequeathed all his ‘worldly goods’ to his wife, Susannah.
Nevertheless, Owen survived and in the same year exhibited his first watercolour at the Royal Academy of Arts, A Sea View. His submission address was listed as ‘Mr Ezard’s’ in ‘Old Brentford’ suggesting that he was living with his mother and stepfather. Later that year, it seems that he was discharged from the Navy though he continued to be employed by it as an artist as well as a ‘drawer to the India Company’. In this capacity he travelled to China, South Africa and France. Owen compiled an album between 1793 and 1798 entitled The Sea Fights, featuring watercolours, etchings, coloured drawings and aquatints of British warships.
In 1797, Owen exhibited at the Royal Academy for a second time with a watercolour entitled, View of the British and Spanish Fleets, commanded by Sir John Jarvis, KB. Between 1797 and 1799, he was living at the Strand. In 1799, he exhibited two watercolours at the Royal Academy of The Director and The Vryheid, inspired by his voyage to South Africa in 1797, depicting Captain Bligh’s victory at the Battle of Camperdown.
In 1802, he exhibited two pictures at the Royal Academy, A Calm and A Fresh Breeze, by which time he was listed as living on the Surrey side of Westminster Bridge (though this may have been his publisher’s address and the address he gave when he was away at sea). The star of Owen’s sailing career appears to have risen alongside his artistic career, as he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy between voyages until 1807, when he exhibited for the last time with Boats in a Heavy Sea. He was elected a member of the Associated Artists in Water-Colours in 1808 when he exhibited 11 marine watercolours. However, after just two years, in 1810, he resigned his membership.
Delicate boat scenes by Owen in the British Museum suggest that around this time he had absorbed the compositional influence of popular Dutch marine painters. Similar compositional motifs are seen in many of his watercolours from this period. His increasing confidence and mastery of the medium of watercolour is demonstrated in his illustrations for William Bernard Cooke’s The Thames (1811), for which he produced 84 drawings. He also had works published in the Naval Chronicle, a newspaper with a seafaring readership.
In 1812 Owen joined the East Indian Company ship the Broxbornebury, as third mate, and set sail for Madras and Ceylon on 15 May. By 1816, he was living in Topsham, Devon and in the same year married for a second time, to Elizabeth Bingle. In 1820, he travelled to Bombay for the first time as a Free Mariner before returning to Bombay as Captain in 1825.
Soon after their marriage, Owen and his wife moved to Deptford, London and had two children, Samuel Richard John Owen in 1822 and Elizabeth Bingle Owen in 1824. Though their first daughter sadly died in 1827, another daughter, also named Elizabeth Bingle, was born in 1828.
In 1828, Owen illustrated his last major book with William Westall, Picturesque Tour of the River Thames, ‘from original drawings taken on the spot’. From this year, it would appear that his artistic career waned, though oils in public collections such as ‘Tagus’ Entering the Bay of Gibraltar, at Southampton City Museums painted in 1844 would suggest otherwise.
Owen spent the last 20 years of his life with Elizabeth, in Ramsgate. Their last known address is Circus Street, Greenwich, Kent.
Samuel Owen died on 14 December 1857 in Sunbury, where is he buried alongside the river.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum; Tyne & Wear Museums (Newcastle); National Museum Wales (Cardiff); and the Yale Centre for British Art (New Haven, CT).
Further reading: R E Graves, revised Anne Pimlott Baker, ‘Owen, Samuel (1768/9-1857), H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Vol 42, Page 263; Peter Sutton, Samuel Owen Artist and Sea Captain. Biography of His Life and Works, Newbury: P W Sutton, 2012
This biography owes much to Peter Sutton's monograph of 2012.