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The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
Geoff Hunt

By Bob Frost, 1993


"The covers I like most are 'Treason's Harbour,' the moonlit view – that works well as a painting to me - and 'The Reverse of the Medal.' Also 'The Surgeon's Mate.'"



The Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, about the Royal Navy circa 1800, enjoyed dramatic rediscovery in the 1990s after years of virtual neglect by the publishing industry and the reading public. (The first book in the series, "Master and Commander," was published in 1969.) Some small part of their recent sales success, and indeed some modest percentage of the pleasure of reading them, can be attributed to a new set of covers painted by English marine artist and illustrator Geoff Hunt.

Born in London in 1948, Hunt says he’s been interested in painting and sketching ships for "as long as I can remember." He studied art in London and was working there as an artist and designer in 1988 when he was picked to work on the O’Brian covers. The first twelve of these oils are now owned by the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, England.

Hunt's works expand beyond the O'Brian novels; his many paintings can be found in the collections of naval establishments and private individuals around the world. He is a member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists and lives in London with his family.

For good scans of all the Aubrey-Maturin covers see here. For several additional color images of Hunt's work see the Website napoleonguide.com and do a search for "Geoff Hunt." For an excellent summary of Patrick O'Brian's work see the introduction to Dean King's biography of the man, available here. For an Amazon.com listing of the Aubrey-Maturin books, see here, and see here for more on history painting.

Q. How did you first get involved with the Patrick O'Brian books, Mr. Hunt?

A. I was actually involved with them before I ever started painting the covers – I read them when they first came out here in the 1970s. They had different covers then. At that time I was a freelance artist and designer working for Conway Maritime Press, which publishes highly-specialized, highly-researched maritime books. Patrick O'Brian was sort of a cult figure among people associated with the company. I read all the novels as they came out; I thought they were great. Then in 1988 I was offered the chance to work on a new series of covers. I thought it was a wonderful, priceless opportunity.

Q. What were the previous covers like?

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An earlier cover.


A. They weren't particularly special. I thought that more could probably be got out of the subjects. I thought it might be nice to approach the whole thing from, literally, a different angle. I worked with John Munday, the art director at O'Brian's London publishers; we decided that instead of doing just ship portraits, or battle portraits or something like that, it would be nice to get right down into the action – put yourself actually on board the ships. Get as close as you can; depict the detail and working life of the ship. O'Brian had written 12 novels at that time. Rather than work on one painting after another I worked on all 12 paintings as a complete series - I sat down and spent a week doing thumbnail sketches, exploring all the things you could do by getting close, down on the deck of one of these ships or up in the rigging or in the fighting tops. I've still got a collection of these initial sketches. I selected 12 of the sketches to be developed into subjects that would suit particular novels.

So, as I say, the whole series was conceived from the beginning as a cycle, as a whole, covering different viewpoints of life on board. And different atmospheric effects. Since then, Patrick O'Brian has fouled everything up by continuing to write more of the things (laughs). (Update: O'Brian completed 20 Aubrey/Maturin books by the time of his death in 2000 at age 85; a 21st work, incomplete, has also been published.) I've had to tack on the later paintings. Most of them are still derived from that original frantic week of scribbling when I was working out all the possibilities.

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Q. How much time did you need to complete the first 12 pieces?

A. I believe it took me nearly a year to complete the original 12. I needed a week-and-a-half, two weeks, for the actual painting of each work. Considerable research was also involved before I began painting, study of the details of the ship for a week or more.


See Here for a Q-and-A Interview With
Tom Pocock, Biographer of Admiral Nelson.


Q. Did you approach the covers in commercial terms at all - i.e., "this will help the books sell" - or were they pure artistic products?

A. They weren’t conceived in commercial terms at all, they were conceived entirely as my response to O'Brian’s marvelously inspiring writing. Once we had established at the beginning what I wanted to do, I was let loose by the publishers. Whatever I did, they printed – they were marvelous. Since then I've heard that the publishers had reservations about one or two of the paintings, but they didn't say so to me at the time, they just printed them. I've never known which ones those were.

Q. On your cover for "The Surgeon’s Mate" I'm thinking that must be Jack Aubrey on the starboard rail. Yes? And perhaps that's Stephen Maturin all the way aft?

A. That's right. Aubrey is up on the weather rail in a sou'wester and Maturin is at the very back gawking at the seagulls. That's Maturin's only appearance on a cover. Aubrey appears two other times – on "Master and Commander" that’s him standing on the poop deck and on "The Letter of Marque" he's standing on the fore topgallant yard holding a telescope.

Q. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to obscure their faces on "The Surgeon’s Mate" cover? So that the imagination can fill in the rest?

A. Yes. Everyone, I think, has their own particular view of how these characters look. I wouldn't want to pin it down. I wouldn't like to distort people's personal vision.

Q. That's a good argument against making a film of the novels.

A. I think a film would be a disaster. I cannot imagine the complexities and subtleties of these books being transferred to a film. There were attempts to film Hornblower – Gregory Peck was in one of them, and there was a Hornblower pastiche thing as well, with Alec Guinness, "H.M.S. Defiant." No, I think a film would be a mistake, really. (Update: "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" came out in 2003 to great praise.)

Q. How large are your original paintings for the covers?

A. They're not that big; they vary a little bit – they’re about 19 or 20 inches high by about 13 or 14 inches wide. Usually if I do a painting for a private individual, on commission, I use a wide format – 20 inches tall by 30 inches wide, or 24 by 36.

Q. Any one or two of the covers that you're most proud of?

A. The covers I like most are "Treason's Harbour," the moonlit view – that works well as a painting to me - and "The Reverse of the Medal." Also "The Surgeon's Mate." That one is printed a little funnily, it's printed very dark, but I was proud of my reconstruction of the quarterdeck of that little sloop Ariel. To reconstruct the actual appearance of the deck of one of these ships is quite a taxing operation. I enjoy things like that.

Q. On "The Reverse of the Medal" I do believe romance is gently blooming in the vicinity of the barrels. On another tack - I was wondering if the painting owes anything to the dramatic and shocking work created by Howard Pyle in 1917, "Landing of Negroes at Jamestown From a Dutch Man-of-War, 1619."

Q. I am not aware of ever having seen the work you mention, though I admire the work of Howard Pyle. However - and uniquely for one of my paintings - "Reverse of the Medal" is in fact directly lifted from another artist, as I acknowledge at every opportunity - "Portsmouth Point," an engraving by the 18th century caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, much more tumultuous and Rabelaisian than my polite reworking.

Q. How did you pursue your research for the covers?

A. I returned to my very good friends Conway Maritime Press. My work for them had made me aware of research and accuracy and getting things right. They publish what they call the "Anatomy of a Ship" series – detailed plans for various ships. It would be possible to build a ship from one of these books. I took the books as starting points. Then I checked on the actual dimensions for a ship of that class in "Falconer’s Maritime Dictionary." Also there's usually a plan or draft available from the National Maritime Museum. Then you sort of mix and match these source materials; you look at photographs of contemporary models; and you finish up with a reconstruction of what the thing probably looked like. Once you've got this massive folder of information you can use it to some extent on several paintings.

People used to say I was quite a fast worker but I think I'm slowing down. I work slower because I get more fascinated by the research – I get more bogged down in it. For private commissioned work now, of a particular ship at a particular time, I read the actual log books of the ship at the Public Records Office here. If you've got that information it's often possible to reconstruct an exact moment in time. It's possible to be as accurate as you can bear, really.

Q. One of my favorite covers is for "Desolation Island." You capture the chilliness, the horrifying inexorableness, of that amazing chase sequence.

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A. That is one of my favorite passages in all the books – the incredible, driving momentum that he sustains through that piece of writing. I'm not sure if I've really captured it on the cover. I tried to. I was working hard at it. I think maybe I would treat it slightly differently if I did it again. There's something that doesn't quite come across – it doesn't really convey the bleakness of it. (Pause.) It's not bad. I suppose because the writing is so impressive, I felt I didn't quite measure up to it. I'll just add, one of the reasons I like "The Surgeon's Mate" cover is, it's based on the scene where his little sloop is racing down the channel, not certain of her position. I find that piece of writing just as convincing and vivid as the "Desolation Island" chase scene.

Q. I agree. Let me ask you - the colors of the sea in your works are striking - how do you capture sea tones?

A. Sea is difficult stuff to paint. There's no formula for painting it, it's one of those things that each person has to find their own way to. The funny thing about sea is, it's not like a house or a tree or a piece of landscape – if you take a photograph of the sea, it somehow doesn't look liquid anymore. The photograph freezes it. It doesn't look runny and moving and liquid and transparent and reflective, it just looks kind of solid. I don't think, therefore, that it's such a good idea to rely on a photograph of the sea as a reference while you're painting. Sea is something you've got to try to sense the movement of, as best you're able to, and then translate it, in your own way, into paint.

Q. Is sea more difficult to paint than sky?

A. Yes, I believe it is. I'm not sure why. (Pause.) It's so changeable in its appearance. Sometimes it looks like a liquid, sometimes it looks like a solid. It has these unusual qualities – it has transparency, but it's reflective.

Q. In the upper left-hand corner of each painting you had to leave space for the author's name, the title, and the little critical blurb. Did that cramp you at all?

A. It caused a couple of problems. The original idea was, the block of lettering could be on either side - some would be on one side, some on the other. At a certain point in the production proceeding the publishers evidently decided to stick all of them on the left-hand side, for continuity. I had already finished the 12 paintings. So on two of the covers, the paintings have been reversed left to right. Which surprised me a little. (Laughs.) This happened on "H.M.S. Surprise" and "The Fortune of War." This means that certain errors have been introduced, because some things on these ships were either left or right; they weren’t interchangeable. The most obvious layman's thing, I suppose, is on "The Fortune of War" – if you look at the marine on the left, firing his musket, he's left-handed instead of right-handed. That's the wrong way to hold the musket if you're a right-handed guy as I intended. Also there are details in the rigging that are now incorrect. No one's spotted them yet!

Q. I think we can be assured that Patrick O'Brian will notice; from what I gather, he misses nothing. Did he have input into your covers?

A. I corresponded with him when I was setting up the series. I've only ever met him once, at a reception in London put on by Charlton Heston. Heston is a great fan of naval fiction, a great fan of O’Brian's – also very interested in my work – and he had a preview reception in 1990 for the "Treasure Island" he was in. I met O'Brian there, very briefly, as we were sort of sliding past one another. I believe he's kind of a difficult man to pin down – he's as you might imagine Maturin to be. Apparently he is himself a very considerable ornithologist. He looks a bit like a bird of prey – he has a piercing, fine-featured look. A bit like a hawk. A formidable figure, actually. He's very slight, but quite formidable in his presence.

Q. Are you a sailor?

A. In 1979 my wife and I sold our house and bought a boat, Kipper, a 26-foot Bermuda-rigged sloop, a standard production boat over here called a Westerly Centaur. She's quite a reasonable sailer; quite a good boat. She took care of us. We sailed her to the Mediterranean and back. We left in September of 1979 and came back in August, 1980. We went across the English Channel and through the French canal system and down the big French rivers, the Seine and the Rhone and so forth.

I would say this voyage was quite a seminal experience in my life. It's an experience that stands out vividly. One is constantly remembering scenes that happened at that time. The experience of actually living on a boat long-term gives you a completely different perspective on things. Actually living on the thing – it's almost like work. You become very sensitive to the weather, and the sky, and what they mean, and what's going to happen to you next (laughs). You also become aware of the kinds of things that sailors in past times would have contended with. You're aware that, for instance, what really matters is how much drinking water you've got left in the tank. Things like that. The practicalities.

Q. It sounds as if your sailing has informed your artwork.

A. Yes it has. The thing you're aware of on the boat – because it's just an ordinary sloop with an open cockpit in the back – you're spending your whole time out in the open all day long. You become extremely aware, as I said. Of the weather, the sky, what the light is doing, what the light is doing on the water. You're acutely aware of what the atmosphere is up to, what it's going to do to you, and how it relates to your vessel. I hope these things come across in my work.

Q. What other artists of the sea, or artists generally, do you admire?

A. I'm very influenced by the Impressionists. Particularly Monet. And Sisley. I'm influenced by their outlook on light and atmosphere. Of Twentieth Century artists I enjoy all the British marine artists – people like Norman Wilkinson and William Lionel Wyllie. Of contemporary artists I'm a great admirer of John Stobart, who's originally from this country and is now working in the States. The thing I like about his work is that, like my own, it's not super-polished. The detail is all there, but there's a certain looseness, a certain vibrancy about the brushwork. You let the brush do a certain amount of flickering about with a lot of different colors to create an appearance of something without actually painting it in smooth detail. I like a certain amount of crustiness in my paint.

Q. Where do you work? And what hours?

A. I usually work ordinary daytime hours. Office hours really. I have a studio about half-a-mile from my home here in Wimbledon. On the way from my home to my studio I pass across the site of Lord Nelson's house. His grounds extended from roughly where I live to roughly where I work. His house doesn't exist anymore, it was demolished in Victorian times, but maybe his spirit lingers on.

-The End-

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