Retracing the steps: Major Peter Savage holds up one of his great-great-grandfather’s watercolours painted in the 1830s. He is photographed close to where the picture was painted. *Photo supplied
Retracing the steps: Major Peter Savage holds up one of his great-great-grandfather’s watercolours painted in the 1830s. He is photographed close to where the picture was painted. *Photo supplied

In the early 1830s Dr Johnson Savage created arguably one of the most revealing and significant album of watercolours in the island’s history.

Now, nearly two centuries later, his great-great- grandson has visited Bermuda for the first time, Major Peter Savage and his wife, Rosemary, planned the trip after the Savage family donated the precious collection of paintings to the National Museum at the end of last year.

Earlier this month the couple from England joined Dr Edward Harris to revisit some of the sites where Dr Savage had set up his easel all those years ago. 

Major Savage told the Bermuda Sun: “We have been quite overwhelmed with the welcome we received in Bermuda.

“Until last year, Bermuda was just a dot in the Atlantic where we knew nobody. But since donating the album and visiting Bermuda for the first time we have made many friends and learned a great deal about an island that has very strong ties with the Savage family.”

Dr Johnson Savage’s collection of 39 paintings depicts scenes and traditional pastimes that have never been seen before in incredible detail and striking colour.

The album contains dramatic panoramic and harbour views over St George’s, Paget, Harrington Sound and Somerset.

And the watercolours capture day-to-day activities such as whale processing, shipwreck salvage and boat repairs in an era before photography.

Major Savage added: “During our trip to Bermuda we had the chance to meet a group of watercolour enthusiasts from Rhode Island who happened to be visiting the island.

“Dr Harris did a presentation and I said a few words about Dr Johnson’s album.

“It was very enjoyable, but to see the watercolours projected on a big screen was quite amazing and really brought the whole thing to life.

“We also met with the Governor and tried to visit some of the spots where Dr Johnson would have painted the images from back in the 1830s.

“Obviously a lot has changed in Bermuda since those days but it was remarkable to see a few of the older buildings still around and get a small insight into what my great-great- grandfather would have seen when he painted the watercolours.

“There were just little glimpses of the past, which was very exciting.”

Dr Johnson’s album of watercolours ended up in Bermuda thanks to a large slice of good fortune.

The collection could have been lost in the Blitz in the Second World War when the family home in London was blown up.

Fortunately the album turned up again intact after the end of war and was passed down to Major Peter Savage.

He in turn, together with his siblings William and Jennifer agreed to donate the album to the National Museum.

Major Savage said: “For me, the jewel in the crown was to visit Dockyard and Commissioner’s House.

“We are very appreciative of the welcome we received in Bermuda and for Dr Harris giving up so much time to us.

“It was a remarkable trip and we hope to return soon.”

Detailed log by Midshipman Savage loaned to museum

The Savage family’s connection with Bermuda continued long after Dr Johnson Savage painted his famous watercolours in the 1830s.

His son, Midshipman Arthur Savage, wrote detailed logs of his two journeys to Bermuda with the Royal Navy in 1862 and 1863.And as a parting gift after his recent visit, Major Peter Savage — Dr Johnson’s great-great- grandson — and his family have agreed to temporarily loan the National Museum one of Midshipman Savage’s logs.

A sketch of Dockyard from the logbook. *Photo courtesy of the National Museum

The shipping log contains narrative as well as paintings from the sailor’s two trips to Bermuda.

Museum curator, Elena Strong, said: “The log book is in the process of getting scanned and the digital images will become part of the Museum’s digital image archive.

“The log of Arthur Savage offers a glimpse into the daily life and routine of a young naval cadet from the age of 15 to 17.

“His log lists the course of the ship, its speed, wind directions, longitude and latitude coordinates and weather along with daily remarks.

A death

“His remarks include mundane duties such as mending clothes and cleaning the deck to finding a fellow cadet dead in his hammock.

“Arthur Savage had two voyages to Bermuda, one from Tenerife on HMS Aboukir and another from Portsmouth on HMS Pylades.

“He was on board the Royal Naval ships patrolling the North Atlantic during the time of the American Civil War.

“The Museum has other Royal Navy ship’s log but none from this time period making this a unique and rare addition, albeit digital, to the Museum collection.”

The Savage family’s links to the island continued even after Midshipman Savage’s two voyages.

Dr Johnson Savage’s grandson, Lieutenant Arthur Johnson Savage, carried out the first Ordnance Survey of the island in 1897. 

Lieutenant Savage was a surveyor for the Royal Engineers and published his work on six sheets in 1901.

The detailed, large-scale survey is still in use today.

A map of Bermuda from the logbook. *Photo courtesy of the National Museum