Magna Carta enroute to the USA: amongst Nova Scotia Icebergs with the Royal Squadron, summer 1939

. Frank W Wood (1862-1953). Watercolour signed, dated 1939 and annotated HMS SOUTHAMPTON and HMS GLASGOW.

Nova Scotia Icebergs - the Royal Squadron, summer 1939

29 x 10 inches (73.6 x 25.4 cms) approx


This original has been sold and is no longer available.

It was in the early spring of 1937 that the Governor General of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir (better known as the author John Buchan) suggested that the new King, George VI, should make a tour of Canada; and when the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, came to London for the Coronation in May 1937 he formally proposed such a visit. President Roosevelt went further: he suggested that the Canadian tour should be combined with a visit to the United States. All parties were in agreement and plans went ahead accordingly for the King and Queen to make the visits in the summer of 1939.

War clouds were daily growing blacker over Europe which although threatening the very idea of such a plan, did introduce a new imperative which the American President was keen to exploit: the British Royal Family on American soil would send a clear message that the two English-speaking nations were in harmony. But such was the concern in Britain over the deteriorating international situation that spring of 1939 that the Admiralty was not prepared to sanction the battle cruiser HMS REPULSE, who was to have acted as royal yacht for this voyage, deploying out of home waters and she was replaced by the Canadian Pacific liner RMS EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA (Captain Archibald Meikle MN). No stranger to Royal tours –- she had carried HRH the Prince of Wales to Canada ten years earlier -– she was to be escorted this time by two ships of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, Home Fleet (Vice Admiral G F B Edward-Collins CB CVO) who was flying his flag in HMS SOUTHAMPTON (Captain F W H Jeans RN); and HMS GLASGOW (Captain C G B Coltart RN).

Whilst the two cruisers were alongside in Portsmouth prior to the Royal Squadron’s departure on 6 May, train truck loads of gold bullion from the Bank of England were secretly loaded aboard. The working parties found the cases remarkably heavy for their size and may have guessed at their contents which were bound for the vaults of Fort Knox and safety from the coming war in Europe. And there was almost certainly one further highly valuable crate loaded aboard one of the two cruisers too: one of four precious original versions of the Magna Carta (this one from Lincoln Cathedral) which was first bound for the New York World's Fair at which it was to take pride of place.  Subsequently when the Fair was over and the British pavillion dismantled in October 1939, the Magna Carta  was moved to the Library of Congress when Britain decided that it was too valuable to ship back acros the Atlantic now that Britain was at war with Germany: it was a sign of just how dire the authorities in Britain considered the threat of invasion to be.  After the USA entered the war against Japan in 1941 the Magna Carta was moved again, this time to Fort Knox where it joined the British gold bullion with which it had journeyed across the Atlantic in the first place aboard one of the two Royal Escorts in May 1939!  

Having experienced unseasonably rough weather for the first few days of the voyage the Royal Squadron then ran into thick and persistent fog which lasted for three full days and threatened seriously to disrupt the finely honed royal schedule ashore in Canada. But the fog eventually cleared on 14th May and found the ships amongst spectacular icebergs and floating sea ice. Frank Watson Wood, the Artist on Tour with the Royal party, has painted this scene vividly in another picture in Maritime Prints’ collection (MP 029) : although well into his seventies he seems to have been painting fast and furiously as there are at least some half dozen watercolours of the maritime aspects of this 1939 Royal Tour, this one of SOUTHAMPTON and GLASGOW escorting The King and Queen in icy waters being another. Frank Watson Wood had only recently been commissioned by the King to paint scenes from the Coronation Fleet Review of 1937 (see MP 045 and MP 046) and the King’s evident satisfaction with these paintings probably led to him being asked to accompany the Royal party on this tour. The form was that all his work would be submitted to HM on completion of the tour and once the King had selected those he wished to be kept for the Royal Collection the remainder were given back to the artist for use as he wished.  Thus, this watercolour appears to be one such painting the artist was allowed to keep and  is a sister work to one in the Royal Collection at Windsor (RI 22685)