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The picture that started Nathaniel Currier on his career of publishing colored prints was of a ship "The Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington." This occurred, January 13, 1840, on Long Island Sound and Currier lithographed it as a half-page illustration for the New York Sun. It was followed by more than three hundred other prints of all kinds of vessels clippers, steamships, and river craft. Those of the fast clipper ships form a distinct group.
The era of these sailing ships began just before 1845 and closed about twenty years later with the opening of the Suez Canal. These clippers specialized in the China tea trade, were active during the California gold rush, and engaged in the long run to Australia. They carried both passengers and cargoes and established many speed records, such as twelve days from Boston to Liverpool, less than ninety days from New York to San Francisco, eighty-one days from Calcutta to New York, and around the world in 134 days. All clippers were specially designed for fast sailing. They were built with sharply curved bow, unusual depth of keel, and tapering hull. Their towering three or four masts carried so much sail that large crews were needed to handle them. They averaged 1500 to 2500 tons burden and in many instances were beautifully fitted. Donald 1VIcKay of Boston was the foremost builder of clipper ships. The record voyages were so much talked about that there was a great demand for pictures of these speed queens. Currier was always ready to fill such a demand and in 1845 published his first clipper-ship print, "Outward Bound." In 1849 he issued a pair, "The Gem of the Atlantic" and "The Gem of the Pacific."
These were followed by nearly twenty more, of which "The American Clipper Ship, Witch of the Waves" is held to be the best of the small-folio clipper prints. It is undated but was issued by N. Currier about 1852. This clipper was built in 1851 by George Raynes at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the California gold trade. One of the most beautiful clippers ever launched, she was a very speedy ship and made many record voyages. Most of these small-folio clipper prints are undated. About half of them appeared after 1857 with the Currier & Ives imprint.
The majority of their later prints were not pictures of specific ships but dramatic views with such titles as "A Clipper Ship in a Snow Squall," "A Squall off Cape Horn," "Off a Lee Shore," "Off the Coast in a Snow Storm Taking a Pilot," "A Clipper in a Hurricane-The Comet off Bermuda" and "An American Clipper Ship Off Sandy Hook in a Snow Storm." Last of this group, issued much later in 1870, was "Clipper Ship The Three Brothers,"
There are but fifteen early clipper-ship prints in the large-folio size. With one exception, they were published between 1851 and 1854 by the enterprising Nathaniel Currier. They all bear the year issued and the imprint, "N. Currier." The sole exception is the "Clipper Ship Challenge" which was the work of Endicott, another prolific producer of lithographic prints. All fifteen show the ships under sail, such as the print entitled "Clipper Ship Red Jacket-In the Ice off Cape Horn on Her Passage from Australia to Liverpool, August 1854".
In addition, there are two later prints published by Currier & Ives, which also record the brief span when these sailing ships were the speed queens of the Atlantic and Pacific. They are "Clipper Ship Three Brothers" issued in 1875 and "Clipper Ship Flying Cloud," done in 1880 as a reissue of the same subject originally published by N. Currier.
The early prints portray twelve different American ships. In the order of publication they are of the clippers, Dreadnaught, Sovereign of the Seas, Racer, Hurricane, Flying Cloud, Young America, Sweepstakes, Comet, Great Republic (three slightly different views of the ship as completed and as rebuilt after being burned), Nightingale, Red Jacket, a second Dreadnaught (shown off Fushar Light) and Challenge (done by Endicott).
Usually Currier published his large-folio clipper prints upon the launching of the ships or shortly after they had made record voyages. This was the case with the Red Jacket print, now considered one of the most pleasing of this group. Copies in mint condition have sold at auction for $1,250. This clipper ship was built at Rockland, Maine. Her maiden voyage in February, 1854, was from New York to Liverpool, done in thirteen days and one hour, despite continuous rain, snow, or hail all the way. That same year, under English charter, she entered the Australian trade and established more records. The one from Liverpool to Melbourne was made in sixty-nine days. On the return, carrying 45,000 ounces of gold, she reached Liverpool in seventy-three days, in spite of considerable time lost off Cape Horn because of field-ice and icebergs.
The Red Jacket's figurehead was a full-length carving of the famous Indian chief for whom she was named. She registered 2,006 tons, was 260 feet long, had a 44-foot beam and a draft of 26 feet. After her first round trip to Australia, she was sold to Pilkington & Wilson for 30,000 english pounds. They continued her in the Australian trade for several years during which she became one of the most famous of the American-built clippers. She ended her days in the Quebec lumber trade.
This Red Jacket print was done on stone by Charles Parsons, one of the foremost of these marine artists, who worked first for N. Currier and later for Currier & Ives. Parsons' name is to be found on nine other clippership prints.
Any large-folio print of an American clipper ship is desirable. Shown under sail with beauty and fidelity, they have long been popular with collectors, and consequently, are now scarce and bring very high prices.