Port Elizabeth of Yore: William John Huggins

William John Huggins was a well-known painter of maritime scenes of which three owned by the Nelson Mandela Art Museum are probably the only ones in his extensive portfolio which relate to Port Elizabeth. Like all paintings of the nascent recently conceived new town of Port Elizabeth, all paintings of whatever nature whether by a skilled craftsman or a dabbler are invaluable as they provide the sparse record of those early days.

Main picture: Painting of whaling off the coast in Algoa Bay during 1832 by William John Huggins with No 7 Castle Hill visible on the brow of the hill

Little is known of Huggins’ early life but he was recorded as being a sailor in the service of the East India Company. During his voyages he made many drawings of ships and landscapes in China and elsewhere. He eventually settled in Leadenhall Street, near East India House in London, England, and practised his art as a profession, being specially employed to make drawings of ships in the company’s service. His work, both original and as prints, found a ready market amongst merchants and seamen.

In 1817 Huggins exhibited a picture in the Royal Academy, and continued to exhibit occasionally up to his death. He also exhibited at the British Institution from 1825 onwards. He became a marine-painter to George IV and to William IV – for the latter painting three large pictures of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Painting of the Chapman attributed to William John Huggins

In about 1805 he married Berthia, their children included: James Miller Huggins (1807-1870), also a marine artist; John William Huggins (1809-?) and Berthia Huggins (1811-1884) who married Edward Duncan and was the mother of Walter Duncan. James and John both contributed to “Huggins’ Marine Sketches”.

Huggins died in Leadenhall Street, London, in May 1845.

William Huggins must not be confused with William Higgins who married the eldest daughter of the Rev Francis McCleland making her my second great aunt.


Huggins’ nautical knowledge ensured his pictures had some repute as portraits of ships, and, although “weak in colouring and general composition” (according to art historian Lionel Cust), they are regarded as a valuable record of the shipping of the period. Some of his work was engraved.

Far be it for me to comment on his artistic skill but his paintings certainly serve as valauble record of the town.



Paintings by Huggins are taken from the website of the Nelson Mandela ArtMuseum

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