Historical Figures

Sir Edward William Watkin (1819-1901) and the History of The Icebergs

The following passage gives information about _The Icebergs' _provenance, or ownership history.

As the Civil War was winding down or shortly after it ended, The Icebergs, still in England, found a buyer. Knighted in 1868, he was Edward William Watkin (1819–1901), a well-connected, well-traveled English railway mogul, Member of Parliament, and connoisseur. The purchase price he paid is not known, but it must have been considerable, around $10,000. Thereafter the painting settled at the Watkin family country house, Rose Hill, at Northenden, outside Manchester.

As an art collector Watkin was and still is elusive. No references to The Icebergs occur in any of his published writings or in his will; neither his biographers nor his obituary writers mention it, and no documents pertaining to his acquisition are known from either side of the Atlantic. Those British critics who reviewed Church's subsequent London exhibitions in 1865, 1868, and 1869 seem not to have been aware that The Icebergs had remained in Britain. The painting apparently was not shown publicly again—at least to audiences who were aware what it was—until 1979.

At Sir Edward Watkin's passing in 1901, Rose Hill and its contents were left to his son, Sir Alfred Mellor Watkin, who almost immediately sold the estate to William Joseph Parkyn, J. P. [1] Parkyn held the property for thirteen years until 1915 when he, in turn, disposed of Rose Hill to the Manchester Union, but not before diverting the painting as a gift "in perpetuity" to the "Church Room" (Church Hall) of St. Wilfred's Church, Northenden. [2] Although the parishioners publicly thanked Parkyn for his generous donation of "a valuable work of art," they obviously were uninformed—or did not trouble themselves—about either the artist's identity or the correct title of their windfall. Their expressed confidence that the work "will greatly enhance the general brightness and beauty of the room" likewise proved superficial. Six years later the painting was returned to its former home because it had obstructed recent performances of Shakespeare's As You Like It given in the Hall by a local drama club.

Back in Rose Hill, unframed for many years, covered by accumulating oily surface dirt, and minutely disfigured when one of the boys living at the Rose Hill Remand Home for Boys scratched in his signature, The Icebergs hung on the large, light-colored wall above the main staircase. There it had remained until 1979, a part of the building’s fabric, lost in plain view.

[1] Advertisements of the sale in Manchester newspapers did not mention Church's painting. See e.g. Manchester Courier and Evening Mail Property Circular, July 1902.

[2] The following data comes from the St. Wilfred’s, Northenden, Parish Magazine, April 1915; letter from Charles H. Hoyle to James McDonald, dated Manchester 10 June 1921; letters from McDonald to Hoyle dated Manchester 22 June, 29 July 1921. Copies of the three letters are in the Manchester City Archives.

Adapted from

  • Gerald Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1980), 96, 106, 107.

  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of the Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002), 20, 76.

Fun Facts

During the years when Church's painting resided in the house, Watkin’s estate, Rose Hill, had served as a home for unwed mothers, an ophthalmic hospital, a convalescent home, an orphanage, and finally a residential assessment center for delinquent boys.

Web Resources

The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece
Enjoy this 2002 DMA exhibition catalogue written by Eleanor Jones Harvey and available online through Issu.