Savannah's Storied Steamship

Artist Robert Morris reimagines the history of the SS Savannah. 

By many accounts, the story of the SS Savannah, the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic, is one of failure. After its historic crossing in 1819, owner William Scarbrough sought a buyer overseas. The ship bounced around the great ports of Europe — Liverpool, Stockholm, St. Petersburg — hosting dignitaries and prospective buyers. No one was interested. The ship was ahead of its time, a popular sensation, but an expensive, inefficient one.

With a sluggish economy back home, the U.S. government dragged its feet on earlier promises to buy the vessel after her trans-Atlantic voyage. Fires decimated the city of Savannah in 1820, and Scarbrough, a prominent Savannah business owner, took a financial hit, forcing him to sell the ship for pennies on the dollar. It was converted back to sail power and eventually sunk off Long Island, New York.

For Robert Morris, focusing on this sad ending does a disservice to the vision and daring of Scarbrough and the incredible feat the SS Savannah accomplished decades before steam power would become the primary mode of sea travel. “It amazes me, really, that this incredible thing happened in Savannah 200 years ago and all that has been written in the press is the same Wikipedia-esque version of the story,” Robert says, “The tale of the beautiful accomplishment and doomed fate are just amazing.”


A Commission & A Challenge

The Ships of the Sea Museum in Savannah commissioned Morris to create two four-by-eight-foot paintings commemorating the 200th anniversary of the SS Savannah’s voyage. Morris hunkered down to research the ship and its journey, consuming tomes and tomes of history.

The two paintings he created juxtapose the truth of the voyage and its trials and tribulations with the innovation and creativity required to conceive of such a feat. The first, “SS Savannah 1819: The Journey,” is a realistic portrayal of the ship and its various inhabitants and visitors — tsars, kings, eccentric royalty. The second, “SS Savannah 2019: A Wheel Within Wheels,” is an abstract swirl of cool oils — a metaphor for those underlying forces of invention, determination and connection. Maybe it is a ship’s wheel spinning in a blur, maybe a wheel of innovation. For Morris, it represents how the wheels of creative force drive a person or a city or a country forward.

Conceptualizing the two works was far from smooth sailing, for lack of a better phrase. The idea for the first, realistic portrayal came to Morris immediately. The second presented a challenge — how to visually communicate the passage of 200 years and the significance of the journey. “As a visual person, I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ It’s not a straight historical concept,” he says.

The inspiration for the second painting was a practice in seeing himself (see About the Photo sidebar) and seeing the circuitous, churning forces behind the ship’s journey. “It is that wheel in the vessel of the SS Savannah that propelled the city forward,” he says. “Throughout time, the concept of the wheel or the circle has had great spiritual meaning. People have historically sat in circles. A family is a circle. A circle represents a passing of ideas. To me, the unifying principle of the 200-year period was the circular wheel.”

“I have always been attracted to things that historically define who we are and propel us forward,” Morris explains. “It was such a big deal when that ship was the first to cross the Atlantic. It had the whole world buzzing. It put Savannah clearly on the map and defined Savannah as a shipping capital and a city of innovation.”

About the Photo

Morris had a strong vision for his first painting — a realistic portrayal of the SS Savannah. The second presented a quandary – communicating what the accomplishment meant 200 years later. Inspired by Rene Magritte’s “La Clairvoyance”, Morris asked photographer Parker Stewart to shoot him similarly posed, painting a modern container ship while gazing upon the SS Savannah in a bottle. “With that painting, Magritte determined who he was as an artist,” Morris explains. “Recreating the image helped me understand the polarity of these 200 years. When I saw that photograph, I had a breakthrough. It came full circle. I could see the cyclical motion of time, sparking the idea for ‘A Wheel Within Wheels.’

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