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Tall Ships Falmouth Artist in Residence: 1998, 2008, 2014

“Over 300 people queued to get into John Dyer's exhibition opening, we gave people the option of the lift or the stairs, and then the race was on! We have never experienced anything quite like it!” 

National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

Artist John Dyer with his official painting for the Tall Ships regatta in Falmouth. In the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Artist John Dyer is famous for his involvement as the artist in residence for the Falmouth Tall Ships Races in 1998, 2008, 2014 and beyond including the Classics -Tall Ships in Monaco and the Tall Ships in London. In 1998 John Dyer was appointed as the artist in residence for the Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Races and created an exhibition of new paintings and the official image and limited edition print for the races featuring the race branding.

In 2008 the artist was again appointed as the artist in residence for the Funchal 500 Tall Ships Regatta and held an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall and again created the image for the official race guide and the limited edition print. The artist also inspired hundreds of children to create their own tall ships art and exhibited this alongside his own in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

In 2014 John Dyer was again asked to be the artist in residence for the Falmouth to Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Regatta and created a spectacular exhibition of paintings in the National Maritime Museum and working with director John Frankland launched the BIG Art and Storytelling Tall Ships Project with Philip Mould OBE and Kids in Museums funded by the Arts Council to involve thousands of children in art and creative writing.

Of all events centred on Falmouth, there are none which have captivated the public imagination to such an extent as the Tall Ships Races and Regattas. The first Tall Ships’ Race was held in 1956 and was originally intended to be a one-off: a last farewell to the era of the great sailing ships, of which twenty of the world’s remaining square-riggers took part in the race from Torquay in Devon to Lisbon in Portugal. However, the sight of those beautiful, stately vessels under full sail attracted so much interest that the Sail Training International association was founded to direct the planning of future events. Since then, races have been held annually – normally held in European waters although there have been several Trans-Atlantic and Baltic races – and consist of two racing legs of several hundred nautical miles, generally with a ‘cruise in company’ between two closer ports sandwiched in the middle of the longer races. Now many countries around the world enter their own sail training ships into these events, which are designed to encourage international friendship and ‘the education and development of young people of all nationalities, religions and social backgrounds, through sail training’.

Falmouth has been the host port for three Tall Ships events in the past twenty years – the 1998 Tall Ships’ Race to Lisbon and Vigo in 1998, the Funchal 500 Tall Ships Regatta (celebrating the 500th anniversary of the first settlement on the Portuguese island of Madeira) in 2008 and the Falmouth to Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Regatta in 2014 – and John has been the Ocial Artist for each of them. From the point of view of most spectators, it is the build-up to the event over the several days before the race begins which is the main attraction, as the actual starting point takes place several miles off shore. The excitement as each new vessel arrives in the harbour; the interest of visiting the ships and learning about life on board; all the street events like shanty-singing and story-telling, fireworks and parties; and the sheer thrill of watching the Parade of Sail across Falmouth Bay: no one who has experienced this – as an organiser, volunteer, sailor, performer or visitor – can ever forget the very special atmosphere of the town en fête and it is hard to imagine any artist who can capture this festival spirit better than John.

The ocial prints produced in advance of each event have been sold widely, and they and John’s other tall ships paintings are amongst his best-loved work. John prepared meticulously for each occasion, researching which vessels were expected to participate, and making sure that he was up to speed on their distinctive features and details of different styles of rigging, as Cornish sailing fans are a well-informed bunch. As a result, although there is a large amount of imaginative interpretation in each painting, they are also a historical record. The green sails and hull of the German barque Alexander von Humboldt , the eye-catching design on the sails of the Omani barquentine Shabab Oman and the immaculate white Mexican barque Cuauhtémo with its sailors lining the yard-arms like a series of cut-out paper dolls and dancing to the Macarena on deck as the ship sailed out of the harbour towards the starting line, were all favourite sights and sounds of the 2008 Regatta.

The 2014 Falmouth to Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Regatta was unusual in that for the first time the starting and finishing points, as well as the route via the Isle of Wight, were entirely in British waters. This provided the impetus for a spectacular multi-cultural event linking both venues, called ‘The BIG Art & Storytelling Tall Ships Project’. John was inspired by the ethos of the Tall Ships’ Races, which requires that over half of the crew of each participating vessel must consist of young people, giving the experience of a lifetime to many children and teenagers who might never have sailed before. Working with John Frankland, who created Shop for Theatre to promote new writing both from developing professionals and children, five professional writers – Dea Birkett, Damien Dibben, Paul Farmer, Maxwell Golden and James Graham – were invited to create their own story, poem or play in response to John’s ocial painting for the 2014 Regatta, Tall Ships and Small Ships . This in turn provided the stimulus for hundreds of children around the UK and beyond to make their own paintings and pieces of creative writing for the project.

Free creative workshops were offered by Falmouth Art Gallery, and the project launch and prize-giving for the best entries was hosted by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. The top 200 entries, chosen from a total of 1300, were exhibited at the Maritime Museum and at Gyllyngdune Gardens in Falmouth, and then at the Heritage Centre in Greenwich, and later included in a lavishly-illustrated souvenir book.

Dea Birkett, Damien Dibben, John Dyer and Philip Mould OBE at the Tower of london promoting John Dyer's Tall Ships ProjectAbove: Dea Birkett, Damien Dibben, John Dyer and Philip Mould promoting John Dyer's BIG Art and Storytelling Tall Ships Project 

"The Big Art & storytelling Tall Ships Project is charismatic. John Dyer's new Tall Ships painting, combined with professional storytelling, creates an irresistible hub for creativity to flourish."

Philip Mound OBE

Like the painting Beagle in the Bay for the ‘Darwin 200’ project, Tall Ships and Small Ships 2014 is chock-full of stories. The painting adopts a bird’s-eye view, looking down over the town and Prince of Wales Pier to the harbour, where sailing ships of all sizes amongst them the beautiful Dutch brig Mercedesand the impressive British barque Tenacious , which has been designed with full disabled access to enable her to be crewed by people of all physical abilities – gather in Falmouth Harbour, surrounded by ferry boats, sailing yachts and the RNLI lifeboat. Much of the action is taking place on shore, where family, friends and pets past and present all have their part to play. As John says, ‘the beauty of painting is that you can bring people and animals back to life’. Everywhere there are people having fun and enjoying the atmosphere; sailors, one of them with his telescope naughtily trained on a window to the right of the painting, and street performers playing musical instruments or riding on a unicycle.

Tall Ships and Small Ships 2014 formed the centrepiece of the collection of John’s paintings celebrating the 2014 Regatta, which had first been conceived to celebrate the significant role that both Falmouth and Royal Greenwich have played in maritime history. The work had actually started a year earlier in Greenwich, after John had been invited to sail along the Thames in the Dutch sailing lugger Iris , from which he recorded many of London’s ancient and recent landmarks. These were included in a companion piece, Tall Ships and Small Ships Greenwich 2014, which was exhibited alongside the ocial painting, together with other works from both ends of the race.

Article courtesy of Kate Dinn.
Read all about John Dyer's life and work in the book 'Painting the Colours of the World' by Kate Dinn.