My Favourite Painting: Martha Lytton Cobbold

Martha Lytton Cobbold of Historic Houses selects a magnificent depiction of the power of nature.

Martha Lytton Cobbold on Seal Rock, Farallon Islands by Albert Bierstadt

‘Seal Rock captivated me as a young child and was a principal inspiration for my love of art and structure. It was on display in a restaurant, part of an amazing collection of an Alabama industrialist, and my mother often remarked at my delight in seeing it — I would hurry through lunch to be excused to stand before it.

‘The translucency of the water, the rush of the waves, the tranquillity of the seals regally resting on the California coastal rocks are utterly captivating. It was painted by the American Albert Bierstadt, a Victorian artist who captured many US landscapes.’

Martha Lytton Cobbold is president of Historic Houses.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Seal Rock, Farallon Islands

A translucent green wave rises and crests, the wind whipping its peak into spray as it approaches the Farallon Islands. This cluster of bare, windswept rocks lies some 30 miles off San Francisco in California, US, visible on clear days as a jagged interruption to the horizon and now a nature reserve. Sir Francis Drake landed there in 1579, missing the Golden Gate to San Francisco Bay in the fog.

Bierstadt was born in Germany, but moved to the US with his family at the age of two. After an early career in photography, he travelled extensively in Europe before returning to America in the 1850s and becoming one of the most successful landscape artists of his generation. With Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, he was part of the Hudson River School, members of which sought to immortalise America’s vast wildernesses by painting sublime vistas to capture the epic scale of this uncharted land.

To reach San Francisco, Bierstadt and his wife, Rosalie, took the newly completed transcontinental railroad from New York State, arriving on the west coast in July 1871. He completed many paintings of the wild Pacific Coast and its sea lions, still famous residents of the city today, and sailed out to the Farallons seeking inspiration.

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In this painting, the power of the sea takes our breath away, the might and awe of the natural world, as so often in his work, Bierstadt’s focus. Atop the natural arch that draws your eye, sea lions growl as birds wheel and waves crash into the rocks.