Thomas Bush Hardy belonged to the generation of later 19th-century marine artists whose careers developed in the wake of the success achieved by such watercolourists as Clarkson Stanfield, Edward William Cooke, Copley Fielding and Oswald Brierly – all of whom had made significant contributions to marine art.
Born in Sheffield, Hardy worked his way to America at the age of 19, where he enlisted on the Unionist side in the American Civil War. However, his military adventure soon ended when, within a year, he was invalided out, returning to England in 1862. By 1870 he had settled in London, with a clerical job and a developing career as a painter specialising in coastal and marine views.
Although Hardy became a highly prolific artist and achieved popular success, nothing is known about his technical training, his artistic influences, or what attracted him to the sea in the first place. It is generally assumed he was completely self-taught. His first exhibited work is recorded at the Society of British Artists (Suffolk Street) in 1871. He was elected a member of that society in 1884. He also exhibited English, Dutch, French and Venetian marine subjects at the Royal Academy between 1872 and 1897.
Hardy was turned down for membership of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours several times but exhibited with the organisation occasionally during the 1880s. A member of the renowned Langham Sketching Club, he was praised as a vigorous draughtsman, although his later watercolours, perhaps not unfairly, were sometimes criticised as excessively rapid, facile and formulaic.
Hardy’s sojourn in Boulogne-sur-Mer between 1877 and 1880 produced a stream of watercolours, both during his stay and after his return to England. The Art Gallery of NSW’s work Clearing a wreck, coast of Picardy, inspired by the sight of a shipwrecked vessel on the Picardy coast, depicts a bustling scene of curious bystanders and salvage workers. Cargo is being loaded onto a horse-drawn cart before the hulk is eventually broken up for the reuse of its timbers.
In 1885 The Sydney Morning Herald described the work as: ‘a large and beautiful watercolour… it has only just been framed and hung. It was painted last year, and represents a crowd of sailors, fishermen, and country people… Like all Hardy’s works, it shows bold yet delicate treatment and admirable handling, the grey sky and the wide expanses of glistening beach, dotted with the figures of men hard at work, being full of vigour.’
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017