Montague Dawson was born at Chiswick, England, in 1895, the son of a yachtsman and inventor, and the grandson of Henry Dawson (1811-1878), a successful marine painter. He inherited his talent for drawing from his grandfather, and his interest in ships and the sea from being the son of a keen yachtsman who owned a cutter, and took part in boating activities on the Thames. While Dawson was still a boy, the family moved to Southampton Water and the young artist had a chance to watch ships going in and out, including some of the great clippers, and indulge his interest in the study of ships.
In 1910 Dawson joined an art studio in Bedford Row, but when World War I broke out he enlisted in the Royal Navy as an officer. He illustrated naval actions for the Sphere. Dawson had been present at the final surrender of the German Grand Fleet and an entire issue of the Sphere was devoted to his official drawings of the surrender.
Deep sea sailors can study a Dawson painting and tell you what ocean, what latitude and the season the artist had depicted, all from the color of the water and the run of the waves, so accurate was his eye.
Montague Dawson could portray the magnificent tea-clipper ships under full sail in all the “veritable clouds of canvas” like no other. He alone seemed to have achieved the ability to paint a ship under press of sail and put it in the water with apparent ease and startling accuracy. This ability did not happen overnight. For some ten years after World War I Dawson worked to find a technique which would enable him to paint the sea as no other artist had realized it before. He wanted to show the light on the water and, at the same time show light through the water. At about this time he began to study under Charles Napier Hemy, R.A. (1841-1917), who Dawson met in the Royal Navy. Napier Hemy never quite got the knack of what Dawson wanted, but through his influence and years of experiment, Dawson eventually achieved the desired effect.
By the early 1930s Dawson was satisfied that he could produce the desired effects and he began to paint the deep sea subjects for which he became so famous. Dawson received many important commissions from both art collectors and yachting enthusiasts while exhibiting at the Royal Academy and Royal Society of Marine Artists.
In 1939 came a fortunate break which Montague Dawson took and which was to teach him so much about tone values. Dawson was commissioned by the Sphere as an official war artist to depict incidents from the war at sea. Because the war effort dictated that magazines such as the Sphere could use only second quality paper and inks with no color printing all the illustrations appeared in black and white. Dawson noticed that where he had one color showing against another, in monochrome both appeared as the same tone, so detail was lost. He therefore began to paint in monochrome and became aware of the delicate subtleties of half-tone and light contrasts. When this knowledge was put into color, Dawson’s paintings suddenly took on a realism not seen before in any other marine artist’s work.
After the war, Dawson’s reputation was further enhanced by such commissions as the royal racing yacht Bluebottle and other works for President Eisenhower and subsequent U. S. Presidents and the British Royal Family.
Dawson’s works may be found in museums, major corporate collection, and most of the important private collections of marine art on both sides of the Atlantic. Today his pictures still continue to break records at auction and substantial demand for his work is sustained and constant. Dawson demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt why he has earned the sobriquet “most important marine painter of the 20th century.”