Captain Malcolm Armstrong Marine Artist & Master Mariner

by John M. MacFarlane 2011

Captain Malcolm Armstrong

In his studio on Pender Island BC Malcolm Armstrong creates images in oil that evoke warm feelings in lovers of maritime heritage. I have two of them hanging in my home that I commissioned more than 20 years ago - one the re-created image of H.M.S. Penguin (commanded by an ancestor) and the M.V. Uchuck at Friendly Cove (capturing a memorable visit made there). After a half-century of serious painting he has sold several hundred paintings and continues actively as a disciplined artist.

Armstrong says that a good marine artist really needs first-hand experience at sea. "If the sky, the weather and the sea are not painted believably then the picture simply won't work", he says, "no matter how accurately the ship itself is painted." Knowledge of the ships comes first-hand for Armstrong, he attended the Southampton College of Nautical Studies in 1948 and apprenticed to the Port Line (London UK) qualifying as a Second Mate in 1952. His career at sea is as remarkable as his accomplishments as an artist. His first ship was an old coal-burning steamer and then he moved into motor vessels sailing between the UK and Australia and New Zealand. In 1954 he emigrated to New Zealand to join the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand eventually employed as a Master in New Zealand and Australian ships sailing on the coast and deep sea. Among his best memories was taking cargo to islands in the South Pacific in the era before air travel made them widely accessible.

Ship Handling Book

In 1966 he joined the New South Wales Pilot Service. He was the Master of the pilot cutter for a year and then served as a pilot in the ports of Newcastle, Port Kembla, Sydney and Botany Bay. He piloted more than 3,000 vessels before retirement in 1987 when he moved to Canada. He really enjoyed ship handing as a Master and as a Pilot. In 1980 he wrote "Practical Ship Handling" published by Brown Son & Ferguson (Glasgow Scotland) and now in its second edition. Becoming a pilot was a 'step up' and gave him experience handling every type of vessel imaginable.

Pilot Boarding Book

During each of those 3,000 ship boardings he had to negotiate the perilous jump from the pilot cutter and the long climb up to the deck, sometimes on difficult ladders under harrowing weather conditions. This was dangerous work and physically demanding. His experiences led him to write the classic work "Pilot Ladder Safety" now in its 5th edition and published by Brown Son & Ferguson (Glasgow Scotland). He appears as an expert witness in court cases involving pilot boarding incidents and is considered the international authority on the subject.

The issues facing Marine Pilots became a major focus for him and he was the Vice-President of the International Maritime Pilots Association 1974–1978 and represent the interests of Pilots in major discussions on the Federal Council of the Australian Merchant Service Guild. He also attended meetings of the International Maritime organization in London as the representative of the International Maritime Pilot's Association. He exhibits a strong interest in safety at sea - and particularly for the personal safety of Pilots boarding and disembarking as part of their official duties. "Safety costs money", he observes, "and sometimes not everyone shares a common interest in it." These were taxing times and Armstrong needed a relief from the focus on these issues.

Cutty Sark Book

While in Sydney he picked up on a boyhood interest in drawing. He attended classes where he acquired the technical skills needed as an artist and kindled his passion for painting ships. His experiences at sea in many different vessels has given him the knowledge to ensure that his paintings are accurate - and 'ring true' when viewed by boaters and mariners. Each painting involves research, he studies images of the original (if available) and draws studies of them beforesettling on the content of the painting. Most ship photographs are taken side-on or are taken as 'record shots' and must be interpreted by an artist who would choose another perspective. Armstrong uses many sources but relies on a large personal marine library and personal experience. He says he is almost as much a researcher as an artist. In 1987 he captured his love of sailing ships when he co-authored "The Cutty Sark and Thermopylae era of sail" with the Australian marine historian Cyril Hume.

Armstrong has been a strong supporter of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia and the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Besides being a valuable source of information for his own research he wants to generate more interest in maritime heritage. Maritime Museums, he feels, are obvious places for the public to get close to a heritage that they would otherwise not have a chance to encounter first-hand.

Malcolm Armstrong at his easel

Malcolm Armstrong at his easel

Besides his original paintings he has had his work reproduced on calendars, greeting cards and in articles and magazines. In recent years he was the Master of the Thermopylae Club in Victoria and has presented talks of his own for other organizations in recent years. Armstrong has exhibited his work in nine solo shows, and more than two dozen other exhibitions. His work has been sold through many galleries, he does not currently have his own, and receives commissions from enthusiasts, owners and collectors from around the world. An encounter with him is always a fascinating experience - his breadth and depth of knowledge is matchless. Readers who might like to commission a work or to purchase a painting can contact him directly at his studio malcolmarmstrong@shaw.ca on Pender Island. He has a website too, which is well worth a visit.

Malcolm Armstrong Painting

Malcolm Armstrong has achieved excellence in several fields – ship handling, publishing, story–telling and marine painting – what any of us might wish to achieve in only field. Yet for him they are all inter–related. If you get an opportunity to view his paintings in a show I recommend taking it in – and if you are interested in commissioning a work or purchasing an original he is most approachable and friendly.


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) Captain Malcolm Armstrong Marine Artist & Master Mariner. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Malcolm_Armstrong.php