William Durrant – Pioneer Yacht Photographer

William Durrant 22 July 2021

A plethora of marine and yachting photographers emerged in the 1880s of which the Beken family at Cowes are the last remaining.

Their trade developed because technological improvements allowed them to take images of moving subjects and because they overcame the challenges of working from small rocking boats. Prior to this photography had been largely limited to portrait studies and artistic scenes, where the subjects could remain immobile long enough to be captured crisply by a slow shutter camera. 

One of so many yachts commissioned by the Coats thread making dynasty of Paisley, the 92 ton TM Amadine was designed and built by William Fife II in 1870.

The 42 ton TM schooner Reverie was designed and built by Robert Steele of Greenock for Francis Powell of Dunoon in 1862.

Portrait photographer William Durant moved to Torquay in the late 1860s. It was a rapidly growing resort town on the Cornish Riviera as well as a yachting destination. Before all others it was Durrant who started producing photographic portraits of yachts. Most of these have a strong family resemblance being taken from the harbour wall with the growing marine villas of Torquay in the background, but in some images he succeeded in capturing yachts with sails hoisted although these are never underway.

The celebrated cutter Bloodhound designed and built by William Fife II for the Marquis of Ailsa had a long and well-illustrated career, but this may well be the oldest image of her.

This image of the M. E. Ratsey designed and built Vol au Vent of 1875 shows her effectively hove to, a rare early image of a yacht with sails aloft.

There is no centralised archive of William Durrant’s work but from the images known to us it appears that his yacht photography was limited to the period up to 1878 when he went into partnership with Edward Cox to form the firm of Cox & Durrant. We have recently been able to acquire a significant collection of Durrant images which, for a first time, allow us to not only see photographs of famous yachts such as the America’s Cup challengers Cambria and Livonia, but also Scottish-built yachts of which no images were known to exist.

The classic 1876 Dan Hatcher cutter Freda is of particular interest as she was owned by yacht designer John Beavor Webb who would go on to design the America’s Cup challengers Galatea and Genesta.

Durrant captured this stunning image of the Ratsey designed and built schooner Livonia which in 1871 became the second ever challenger for the America’s Cup.

Eclipsed by so many more famous photographers, William Durrant’s work offers a unique opportunity to see yachts at the dawn of the age of photography.