Catalogue entry

423. [N00546] ‘Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! another Fish!’ Exh. 1846

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (546)

Canvas, 35 1/2 × 47 1/2 (90 × 121)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (one of 76–8; see No. 414 [N00545]); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1846 (237); Exhibition of Modern Art, New Gallery, Edinburgh, March 1851 (see below); Amsterdam, Berne, Paris (repr.), Brussels, Liege (41), Venice (repr.) and Rome (repr.) (50) 1947–8; Whitechapel 1953 (99); Paris 1965 (36, repr.); Edinburgh 1968 (15).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; Bell 1901, p. 155 no. 257; Armstrong 1902, p. 237; Falk 1938, p. 185; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, p. 413, 510 no. 575; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 72, pl. 125; Wilton 1979, pp. 213–14, 222; Wilton 1980, pp. 97, 153; Ziff 1980, p. 170; Venning 1985.

Exhibited in 1846 with the reference ‘—Beale's Voyage’. Despite this reference the picture is much less closely tied to the text than are the two whaling pictures of the previous year, Nos. 414 [N00545] and 415. As John McCoubrey pointed out in his lecture on ‘Turner's Whaling Pictures’ given at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, on 18 April 1975, there is no record of a whaler called the Erebus. In fact Turner seems to have been cashing in on the interest in the voyage of the Erebus and the Terror in search of the North-West passage. The ships set out in 1845, were still away in 1846, and were finally abandoned as lost in 1847.

In addition Barry Venning has suggested that the use of the name Erebus in the title of this, the first of a pair of pictures of whaling in the Arctic region, as opposed to the Antarctic scenes of the whaling pictures of the previous year, Nos. 414 [N00545] and 415, was an indirect allusion to the scene of a whaling ship entangling itself in the ice of the companion painting, No. 426 [N00547]: the Admiralty had promised to send out Erebus, together with the Terror, in an attempt to relieve the fourteen ships (including the Isabella, one of the two ships in John Ward's exhibit of 1840 which may have suggested these whaling subjects to Turner) which had been caught in the ice in the winter of 1835–6; in the event the Admiralty reneged on their promise, which would have served to strengthen memories of the role played by the Erebus and the Terror in connection with whaling ships caught in flaw ice. The disaster of 1835–6, which was followed by a similar disaster the following winter (which involved the Swan, the other ship in John Ward's 1840 exhibit) was a result of the over-fishing of the North Atlantic waters which had forced whalers further and further north with an increased risk of being frozen in. It is also relevant, as Ziff has noted, that Turner owned part v, on Fishes, of John Richardson's Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Erebus and Terror, 1845 (see Falk 1938, p. 258, and exh. cat., R.A. 1974–5, no. B117).

It is possible that the title of this picture also echoes two passages in Thomas Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale. The first, in the chapter on the ‘Chase and Capture of the Sperm Whale’, comes in the fourth episode when nine boats from three different whalers pursue a whale; on p. 179 there is a description of shouted exchanges between the men in the boats, invoking the names of their parent ships much like the title of this picture. The second, in the appended Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage, and thus, unlike the 1845 references, actually justifying the reference to ‘Beale's Voyage’, is the account of the cheers that greeted the securing of the last whale of the voyage of the Sarah and Elizabeth under Captain Swain.

Venning has noted the accuracy with which Turner has depicted the ‘cutting in’ of the whale, with its head being hoisted on deck while other members of the crew use their sharp spades to cut off and unwind a ribbon of blubber from the carcass which is being turned by a windlass. The next stage in the process is the boiling of the blubber, the subject of the companion painting No. 426 [N00547].

Of the drawings in the ‘Whalers’ sketchbook one is close in composition to this picture (CCCLIII-14). Venning sees the previous page, 13, as an earlier stage in the evolution of this composition, with figures in the bottom right-hand corner shouting ‘Hurrah’.

Of the two whaling pictures exhibited in 1846, this example mysteriously received by far the greatest abuse. The Art Union for June 1846 used it as a peg on which to hang a comparison with Turner's works of twenty years earlier, summed up in the phrase, of his recent works, that ‘they only share the prestige of earlier productions’. Of this picture the reviewer goes on, ‘but for the oracular catalogue, it is impossible to divine the subject of the picture: there is no form for the eye to dwell upon, save the topsails and ropes of the ship. ’ Hours of examination of the picture had passed without the critic ‘finding that severity of purpose which should characterize it’. The Almanack of the Month showed a cartoon of ‘Turner painting one of his pictures’ with a large mop dipped in a bucket labelled ‘YELLOW’ and wrote ‘The subject is, “Hurrah for the whaler Erebus— another fish”, but it should be called “Hallo there! —the oil and vinegar, —another lobster salad.” ’ The review continued: ‘Considerable discussion has arisen as to the mode in which Turner goes to work to paint his pictures. Some think he mixes a few colours on his canvas, instead of on his palette, and sends the results to be exhibited. Another ingenious theory is that he puts a piece of canvas in a sort of pillory, and pelts it with eggs and other missiles, when, appending to the mess some outrageous title, he has it hung in a good position in the Academy. Our own idea is, that he chooses four or five good places, in which he hangs up some regularly framed squares of blank canvas. A day or so before the opening of the Exhibition, we believe he goes down to the Academy with a quantity of colours, and a nine-pound brush, with which he dabs away for a few minutes, and his work is finished.’

On the other hand The Times for 6 May wrote, ‘But surely the “Hurrah for the Whaler” (237) should check all those who regard the pictures of this great colourist as mere themes for mirth. It is a sea-piece, the ships in the foreground being the usual indistinct combinations of red and yellow. The spectator looks full against the sun, and the treatment of this blaze of light, with the delicate etherial indications of the clouds in the “cirrus” region, is most magnificent.’ Similarly the Spectator for 9 May wrote, ‘Turner has also another couple of Whalers, wonderful compositions of light and colour.’ The Literary Gazette of the same date found, of all Turner's exhibits of this year, that ‘So entirely is the eye carried away by a sort of indistinct and harmonious magic, that we seem to consent to the abandonment of solid truth and real nature altogether, and allow dark ships to be chrome yellow, whales glittering pink, human beings sun or moon beams, and little thick dabs of paint ethereal clouds.’

That this picture was included in an exhibition of modern art at the New Gallery, 90 George Street, Edinburgh in March 1851 is suggested by a reference in the Scotsman for 1 March 1851.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984