Fid Harnack was a well-known marine artist, who lived most of his life on Mersea. He was born in London in 1897, Frederick Bertrand Harnack, but known to east coasters and his friends as Fid. He was the son of a distinguished doctor [Ernest Henry Harnack] who was a pioneer in the medical use of X rays, sacrificing his hands doing experimental work. Though handicapped by artificial substitutes, his father still enjoyed sailing with his sons during holidays at the fishing and wildfowling village of West Mersea.
From an early age Fid was fond of drawing and painting but received no specialised training. When he was 17 the first world war commenced and Fid joined the army and served in France. He experienced the now unimaginable hell of trench warfare and fighting in the battles of the Somme in 1916 and at Arras and Passchendale in 1917, where he was wounded.
Stretcher bearer, London Rifle Brigade
Even in these conditions he found time to draw and occasionally paint the nightmare landscapes of destruction and the mole-like life of the fighting soldiers. Like most of his generation who served there, he was determined to forget those four years which left a revulsion towards guns.
He studied art in the early 1920s and was soon providing black and white illustrations for several magazines and newspapers in the heyday of that medium.
Greenwood, High Street North, West Mersea
In 1922 on retirement from the London Hospital, Fid's father moved with his family to Mersea Island and settled in Greenwood at the end of High Street North. Fid and his brother Edwin (Gus) were delighted to find themselves in a
community composed mainly of fishermen, wild fowlers, boat builders, sailmakers and yachtsmen.
Amongst this clan at the time was Arthur Briscoe, then in his early fifties; a prime marine artist and illustrator, a fine seaman and owner of the powerful
cutter yacht "Golden Vanity". Fid sailed with Briscoe a great deal and cruised with him as far as Falmouth,
both painting and sketching all the way, with Briscoe influencing the younger man's work in some ways, particularly criticising Fid's habit of painting facing
the light. However, results justified the unusual method and his consummate capturing of reflected light on the sea, the characteristic shining muds of low water and the broad, windy skyscapes of Essex makes his art unique. It has remained a fascination all his life.
Fid and his brother often hired the small centreboard dayboat "Kate" from Bill Wyatt, the West Mersea shipwright, and sailed her in company and sometimes competition with others owned by local families.
The tiller came as naturally to his hand as the pallet knife and the seaman's instinct reinforced his artistic expression. Appreciation of his painting grew and to keep close to his subject Fid and his brother acquired a transom-sterned ship's boat, which was converted to a small cruising sloop by Mr. Clark, the boatbuilder near the hard.
It emerged as the "Ben Gunn"; shoal draught, able and a familiar sight in Essex and Suffolk waters under her tan sails, on her mooring amongst the smacks in Buzzun Creek, or at anchor in the Pyefleet.
During the late 1920s his work began to illustrate sailing magazines, particularly the Yachting Monthly, then resurgent under new editorship of Maurice Griffiths,
an east coast devotee attracted by Fid's accurate capturing of the ways of sea and sail. He also did many drawings for "All about ships and shipping", a substantial book edited by his brother.
In 1930 Fid felt the urge to sail in square rig, as Briscoe had done a few years previously and shipped for a voyage in the Finnish barque "Alastor", sailing from the East India Dock to the Gulf of Bothnia in ballast,
returning loaded with timber. Here was much new material for his brush and a fine oil of her deck is amongst his favourites. Fid was also fascinated by the shape and power of waves and took passage in a small cargo steamer to Bilbao at a time of year when a gale or two might be expected, but the sea was relatively calm.
Disappointed, he returned in a 25,000 ton liner for the contrast.
The late 'twenties and 'thirties were, perhaps, the golden age of Fid Harnack's work. He sailed, painted and drew his way into the traditions of the east coast. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Fid was initially in Air Raid Precautions on the Island, but in August 1942 he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Sub Lieutenant and, ironically, was made gunnery officer in the Motor Launch flotillas on the Clyde.
Lieutenant F.B. Harnack, RNVR. 1944
1946 found Lieutenant Harnack again a civilian, returned to a Mersea reviving the old ways but growing in population and in numbers of boats crowding the anchorage. Painting recommenced with vigour and the "Ben Gunn' again sailed the salty estuaries.
Fid's paintings are classics of the coast in all its moods and particularly capture the feeling of modest adventure which sailing men enjoy: dawn breaking red against the tumbling grey seas of the Wallet; sunshine and squalls dappling and darkening a Blackwater punctuated by dredging smacks; brown sailed barges punching to windward
in a short sea; summer moonlight on the Pyefleet anchorage, riding lights twinkling and mist promising a fine day tomorrow; a fleet of racing dinghies striving round a windward mark in the sun glitter of high water;
a full bowed smack on the hard with scrubbing men under her bilge; a seagoing yacht overtaken by a large cargo ship, the canvas vibrant with waves and the rumbling throb of a big diesel engine.
His paintings attract an international clientele and have been sold to many countries He has exhibited at the Royal Academy and at many of the major galleries.
The text above is based on that written by John Leather which appears in the brochure for A Restrospective Exhibition of Fid's work at The Minories in Colchester September 1983.
Fid was the son of Ernest Henry Harnack 1868-1942 and Francis Elizabeth 'Fanny' Harnack. Fid had an elder brother Edwin Percy 'Gus' Harnack born c1893 and an elder sister Nellie Maud Mary Harnack born July 1894.
Fid's parents moved to Lilac Cottage, West Mersea in 1922 and renamed it Greenwood, Ernest having retired from the London Hospital because of his disabilities. In 1931 Gus and Fid were living at Greenwood as well has his parents. 1936 Fid's mother died and in 1937 an annexe was built on to Greenwood so by 1939 living there were Ernest (Fid's father), Fid, Edna M. Smith née Ewbank. Sheila Mary Ewbank Smith (Edna's daughter), plus Nellie Lussignea and her three children.. Nellie was Fid's sister who had married in 1930.
Fid married Edna Smith 2nd Quarter of 1942 and so Sheila became his stepdaughter.
Fid Harnack died March 1983.
Sheila married Des Carter in 1953. She died March 2006 and her husband in July 2021.
Fid Harnack art
Ernest Harnack X-ray pioneer