Remembering the beauty of ships and cars of yore

by | Jul 8, 2019 | Marine Art, Shipping

The sailing ships in days of yore were so splendid that they inspired countless paintings, including The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies (pictured above) by Dutch Golden Age artist Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom (c.1562–1640). Those who built them were more than shipwrights. They were artists if one goes by the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of art as “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination.”

Some sailing ships in the 17th to 19th centuries were true masterpieces. They exuded beauty from keel to mast — which is all the more impressive because the vessels were constructed sans the aid of computers and heavery machinery. The East Indiaman Prins Willem, for one, had a sculptured stern reminiscent of the bas-reliefs and other sculptural elements inside a Baroque cathedral.

The stern of the replica of Prins Willem at Sail Amsterdam, 18 August 2005
Photo credit: Dirk van der Made / CC BY 1.0 licence

The design of today’s ships is humdrum, to say the least. Containerships in particular are plain-looking. They are like oversized Lego bricks. The vessel’s name is simply painted on the stern whilst the name of the company is emblazoned on the sides of the hull like a giant billboard. It is as if the artistic spirit of the old shipbuilders had been tossed overboard by a new utilitarian outlook.

CMA CGM Kerguelen and Alp Centre
Photo credit: Kees Torn / CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Thankfully for car owners who look for beauty, the trend toward aesthetic plainness has spared the car world. Today’s sedans and SUVs are stylish and elegant, their overall design dictated as much by ergonomic as by artistic considerations. They still have beautiful curves but the curves are musculine, not feminine. The lines are sleek and angular. Those who are not into the “futuristic” look may feel a certain nostalgia for the cars of yesteryear, such as the Toyota Model AA with its voluptuous charm.

Toyota C-HR Hybrid
Photo credit: Ali Akde (2016)


Replica of the Toyota Model AA, the first passenger car of Toyota produced from 1936 to 1943
Photo credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

The old sailing ships had wooden carvings on their prows. Aside from serving to identify the vessel, these figureheads held a symbolic significance for the crew. They also added an artistic touch to the ship in the same way that the early cars had hood ornaments. The figureheads have vanished from today’s ships. The same fate has befallen car hood ornaments.

Figurehead of the 19th-century Danish frigate Jylland
Photo credit: McKarri (Wikimedia user) / CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

Jaguar XK150 hood ornament (cropped)
Photo credit: Tap Tapzz /

The beauty of the old sailing ships drove English poet Robert Southey to wax poetic in his 1799 Sonnet XIX:

She comes majestic with her swelling sails,
The gallant bark! along her watery way
Homeward she drives before the favouring gales;
Now flirting at their length the streamers play,
And now they ripple with the ruffling breeze.

One would be hard put to find a similar poetic tribute paid to present-day cargo vessels and container ships. For all intents and purposes, romanticism in the shipping world is dead. As for beautiful cars, they continue to elicit high praises at auto shows where poets are not likely to go.

~Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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