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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Mediterranean Watercolours

Special Notice

Many historical documents and photographs from the Clifford family were sold at auction in the south-west of England between 1990 and 2005. If you have any material relating to Henry Clifford, or know where it may be found, please email me: [email protected].
Drawings, watercolours and paintings signed H. Clifford are also of interest.

—Bill Burns

A small section of the 1866 Atlantic Cable, which has remained in the Clifford family for 144 years, is featured on BBC Radio 4's A History of the World website.

See also the following pages:
Henry Clifford Biography
Finding Mr. Clifford
Great Eastern Paintings
Teredo Tape
Henry Clifford Patents


Mediterranean Watercolours

Henry Clifford in 1865, from The
Atlantic Telegraph
book (above)
and from Henry O'Neil's sketch
for the newsletter published on
the Great Eastern (below)

Henry Clifford (1821-1905) was a mechanical engineer, the cousin of Sir Charles Bright’s wife; Bright was instrumental in laying the early Atlantic cables. Introduced to the cable business through his friendship with Bright, Clifford served as an engineer on all the Atlantic cable expeditions from 1857 to 1866. He designed the paying-out machinery which was successfully used on Great Eastern in 1865 and 1866, and worked at Greenwich for the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) as its chief engineer until his retirement in 1894.

While not engaged in engineering duties, Clifford took the opportunity to draw and paint scenes of cableships and surrounding scenery, beginning in 1857 with views of the Agamemnon.

The first of this group of four 19th century watercolours of the Mediterranean is titled in pencil on the mount “Marabut”, and is signed in ink “H. Clifford”. A pencil note on the mount reads: “Marabut, 4 P.M. Sep 21 1861.”

Marabut is on the Mediterranean coast in the Straits of Gibraltar, and according to the 1898 biography of Sir Charles Bright (Vol. II, p.3), in the latter part of 1861 Clifford represented Glass Elliot & Co for the laying of the Malta-Alexandria cable.

A letter in the Times from its Malta correspondent, datelined Valetta, September 17th, reported that CS Rangoon, with Clifford, Canning, and De Sauty on board, had commenced laying the section of the cable from Alexandria to Bengazi on 15 September, the rest of the cable from Bengazi to the Gulf of Syrtis to be laid by CS Malacca, completing the project. Marabut lies west of the route of this cable, so it is a reasonable assumption that Clifford painted the watercolour while on board Rangoon at the conclusion of the expedition.

Mediterranean Cables

In June 1861 Clifford was engineer on the Malta and Alexandria cable expedition, again assisting Samuel Canning, and sailed on the Malacca. Wildman Whitehouse was also on this expedition. On this voyage the Malta-Tripoli section was laid, and Henry arrived at Malta on 6 June. From there he went to Toulon to lay the Corsican cable, where he painted this watercolour:

Ajaccio - Corsica
This watercolour is mounted in one of Alexander Clifford’s albums
Although dated “1860” in pencil, this was added later
and the painting is almost certainly from 1861.

Image courtesy of Jim Kreuzer

Later that year, in September 1861, Clifford continued the cable from Alexandria to Benghazi [(Bright 1898 p64]. For more information see this page.

While on this expedition he painted two watercolours of Libyan coastal scenery between Ras al Milhr and Benghazi. Both were made on 21 September 1861, one at 3pm “139.1 Nauts from Ras al Milhr”, and one at 4pm “145 Nauts”, according to the pencil captions on the back of each painting.

Marked in pencil on the mount:
Sketch made on board the Rangoon
laying cable between Malta & Alexandria.
3.75 x 10.25 inches; signed: H. Clifford

Caption in pencil on back of watercolour:
Wad Halaw
3 P.M. Saturday Sept. 21st 1861.
44460 = 139.1 Nauts from Ras al Milhr Collection

Marked in pencil on the mount: Marabut, 4 P.M. Sep 21 1861
3.75 x 10.25 inches; signed: H. Clifford

Caption in pencil on back of watercolour:
4 P.M. Sep. 21.
46400 = 145 Nauts Collection

Clifford signature on Marabut watercolour

Following the line of the cable from Ras al Milhr (near present-day Bardiya) for 139.1 nautical miles (~258 kilometers) gives a location for the paintings somewhere near Derna, on the Libyan coast. About the same distance again would have brought the expedition to Benghazi.

The Rangoon arrived at Benghazi on 23 September 1861, two days after the date of the watercolours, and from there returned to England. The Malacca completed the final section, from Tripoli to Benghazi, between 26 and 28 September, and communication between Malta and Alexandria was then established.

On the back of the mount for the Marabut watercolour is a photograph of the landing of the shore end of the 1871 Port Darwin (Australia) to Java cable. As with the Malta-Alexandria cable, this cable was laid by Telcon (the successors to Glass, Elliot & Co.), but it’s not known if Henry Clifford sailed on this expedition.

The next watercolour is dated Nov 2nd 187?, and is of the island of Pantellaria (modern Pantelleria), an Italian possession located in the Strait of Sicily between Sicily and Tunisia.

The partial signature on this watercolour (initials H.H., last name beginning with C, G, O or Q) leads to a cable connection for this and the following watercolour of the Pharos at Alexandria, both of which were almost certainly painted on the 1870 Malta-Alexandria cable expedition.

H.H. Gibson
Image courtesy of Jacy Wall

Chief engineer for this voyage was Sir Samuel Canning, and his staff included Harold Hawksworth Gibson, the grandson of Henry Clifford's 1840s foundry business partner.

Gibson started working for Clifford at Telcon in 1870 and sailed on two Mediterranean expeditions that year [Hull Gibson-Clifford archive]. The second of these was the Malta-Alexandria cable, laid by Telcon for the Anglo-Mediterranean Telegraph Company using CS Chiltern and CS Belgian, and handed over to the company on 22 November 1870 [date from The Manual of Submarine Telegraph Companies].

Gibson's notebook log of the "Anglo Mediterranean Duplicate Cable, Commencing Friday October 7th 1870" [NMM Henry Clifford Papers] has the following entry:

Oct 31st. Monday. Fine weather & westerly wind.
6.30 am. Abreast of Pantellaria.

Nov 1st. Tuesday, 6.30 am. Hauled ship alongside "S.S. Kangaroo" & commenced taking fuel from her.

The correspondence of the dates and names makes it a reasonable assumption that the watercolour date is Nov 2nd 1870, and the signature H.H. Gibson. The two-masted ship shown at the tip of the island in the watercolour may be the Kangaroo.

Pantellaria Island, Italy
Now usually spelled Pantelleria
(between Sicily and Tunisia)
5.25 x 8.25 inches
Dated Nov 2nd 187? and signed H.H.?...

The watercolour has been trimmed; a note at the bottom left has been
cut off, and the date and signature at the bottom right are truncated.

Pantellaria caption

Detail of two-masted ship from the Pantellaria
watercolour, perhaps CS Kangaroo (see text above)

PANTELLARIA lies nearly on the meridian of Maritimo, at the distance of 72 miles, its centre being in latitude 36° 48', and longitude 11° 58'. This island, a depend­ency of Sicily, is about 30 miles in circumference, entirely volcanic, its features being the vestiges of craters, with prodigious quantities of lava, pumice, scoria, and pozzolana, hot springs, vapour-stoves, and grottoes formed by corrosion. The interior is divided into broken hills, covered with brush-wood, and ravines, and valleys, moderately cultivated with olives, figs, vines, cotton, and vegetables.

The island is so high that, in moderately clear weather, it may be seen from the deck of a frigate at the distance of 15 leagues. Its summit is near the centre of the island, and it appears sloping downward to each end; but the east end is much higher than the west.

Sailing Directions for the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea.
London: John Purdy, Hydrographer, 1841.

Maritimo (now Marettimo) Island (blue marker)
Pantellaria (now Pantelleria) Island (red marker)
View Larger Map

The next watercolour is of the Pharos at Alexandria, Egypt. It is titled in pencil on the reverse: “The Pharé, Alexandria”, and has a partial caption (“...ré”) which appears to be in the same hand as the Pantellaria painting. Gibson's log of the cable expedition records:

Nov 23rd. Wednesday. Daylight Steamed for Alexandria

Nov 27th. Sunday. Slipped from buoy & steamed from Alexandria for London

The Pharé (Pharos), Alexandria, Egypt
3.5 x 8 inches

The watercolour has been trimmed; there is a partial caption at the
bottom left which appears to be the end of the title “The Pharé”.
The watercolour is titled on the reverse “The Pharé, Alexandria”

The Pharé caption

THE NEW PORT is confined on its western side by the Pharos, which is a square castle with the light tower upon it; this is regularly lighted every night : the castle is fortified, and has 12 thirty-two pounders and 6 mortars.

New Sailing Directions for the Mediterranean Sea.
London: Charles Wilson, 1841.

This c.1800 illustration of Alexandria shows the Pharos in the distance; the scene had hardly changed by the time of the watercolour, about 1870.

Detail from Alexandria illustration
courtesy of Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya
(Cartographic Institute of Catalonia)
Alexandria (Egipte) - Alexandrie
Rouargue, c.1800

Alexandria Harbour
Placemarker shows Pharos
View Larger Map

The location of the subject of the fourth watercolour is at present unknown, but the style of the sails on the small boats is similar to that in the watercolour The Pharé above. This piece was perhaps unfinished, as the foreground has little or no detail.

Unknown location

Boat from unknown

Boat from The Pharé

Harold Gibson also laid cables for Telcon at Singapore in 1871; Malta and Tripoli in 1872; and from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1873

At the other end of Gibson's notebook is an essay titled: Something about Telegraph Cables. A paper read before the “Hornsea Mutual Improvement Society” by HH Gibson, V. President. A revised copy of this paper is currently (November 2008) offered for sale by Jeremy Norman. This gives details of the 1873 Great Eastern expedition, which laid a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland for the Anglo American Telegraph Co., the cable having been manufactured by Telcon.

Harold Gibson left the cable service in 1874 on the death of his father and returned to Hull to take over the family business.

Map showing Gibraltar, Pantelleria, Malta, Alexandria

Last revised: 8 December, 2019

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