Loudon Wilson - Kilsyth Maritime Artist

Loudon Guthrie Wilson was born in 1903 in Kilsyth, emigrating to Canada in 1912

by Robert W. Graham

I have been interested in the lakes ever since I was a boy and in the last five or so years have become more enthusiastic about the sailing vessels. My old notes on steamers lie almost forgotten. From old sailors I have gained considerable data on the general construction and rigging of all the outstanding types of schooners.

In the above excerpt from a letter written to Herman Runge in 1936, Loudon Wilson spoke of his love for the vessels that once sailed the Great Lakes and of the respect and admiration he felt for those who built and sailed those ships. This love eventually became a permanent legacy to historians, marine artists and other researchers in the form of the Loudon Wilson Collection.

Loudon Guthrie Wilson was born in 1903 in Kilsyth, Scotland.  His mother, Agnes Loudon Dykes Wilson, shared her admiration for the Clyde steamers with her son, fostering what would be Wilson's lifelong enthusiasm for such vessels.

In 1912 Wilson's mother died and his father's business failed. Despite these setbacks, there was enough money to finance the Wilson family's emigration to Canada. The Wilsons settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There, Loudon began sketching lake and river vessels. In 1923 Wilson moved to Detroit to pursue a career in commercial art. His maritime interests flourished in Michigan as he focused on the Great Lakes' age of sail; he started the process that resulted in a magnificent collection of historical documentation, detailed drawings, photographs, correspondence and marine art.

Loudon Wilson married Grace Anne Harrington in 1926; together they raised four sons. Wilson continued his interest in marine art into his retirement at Santa Paula, California. Following his death in 1988, Wilson's collection was donated to the Institute for Great Lakes Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

The Loudon Wilson Collection represents over sixty years of research and writing on "lake schooner practice and building," as Wilson described it. There are several major series within this complex research collection. One section consists of a chronological file covering the evolution of sailing vessels and the maritime history of the Great Lakes from the eleventh century on. These files include newspaper articles, notes from historical studies, photographs, and original sketches and drawings. Wilson often annotated the entries in this file with research updates, corrections and notes regarding unresolved questions. These files provide an impressive overview of the maritime history of the region.

The collection's second module, Wilson's subject files, combines the talents of historian and artist to produce a unique body of work documenting the evolution of Great Lakes sailing vessels. Most of the illustrations are visually appealing and historically accurate; the research supporting the drawings is important to the maritime historian. Wilson's intimate knowledge of the vessels he sketched was critical to the accuracy and beauty of his artwork. His sense of place, function and proportion that developed through his research and his occupation as an artist enhance his work throughout the collection.

The collection's significance lies in Wilson's unique combination of research and his ability to graphically communicate his findings. He studied available published sources, corresponded with historians, collectors, vessel masters and others who had a working knowledge of Great Lakes schooners. A good example of this is a series of letters to Captain John Thurston, who began working on sail craft in the 1870s. The letters contain a wealth of detail on the building and sailing of schooners and often include the captain's drawings in response to specific inquiries from Wilson.

Thanks to Loudon Wilson, historians, archaeologists, model builders and folklorists may enjoy a rare contribution to the maritime history of the Great Lakes.

This article first appeared in the January/February 1994 issue of Michigan History

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Pen-and-ink drawing by Loudon Wilson


The pen-and-ink drawing, entitled Ocean Wave is part of a general body of marine art that demonstrates Wilson's interest in detail and scale.

In a letter written in 1935 Wilson observed, "I have never seen a lakes schooner in sail and this may be why I have such a strong desire to bring them back in picture form." One of Wilson's schooners under sail is the Lizzie A. Law.

The Mayflower, a side-wheel steamer built in Detroit in 1849, represents Wilson's early interest in steamers.

The Lucia A. Simpson, built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, part of Wilson's study of regional variations in lake-vessel construction.

Stern detail renderings of a dozen vessels, also part of Wilson's study.

Amusement Songs documents a portion of the vast folklore that developed around Great Lakes shipping. 

source: http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/extra/folklore/wilson.html