Joseph Mallord William Turner


exhibited 1845

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 911 x 1219 mm
frame: 1300 x 1610 x 180 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This is the first of two whaling subjects Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1845 (followed by two more in 1846), probably painted in the hope of selling them to his patron Elhanan Bicknell, an investor in the whaling industry.

The four pictures were inspired by Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), with this painting based on an account of the pursuit of a whale in the North Pacific. At the right the creature has been harpooned and is bleeding, while men in three boats stand with their arms raised to strike again.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

414. [N00545] Whalers Exh. 1845


Canvas, 35 7/8 × 48 (91 × 122)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (one of 76–78; see below); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1845 (50); R.H.A. 1846 (253); Moscow and Leningrad 1960 (56); Edinburgh 1968 (14); on loan to National Maritime Museum 1975–84.

Lit. Ruskin 1843 (1903–12, iii, pp. 250–51); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; Bell 1901, p. 151 no. 249; Armstrong 1902, p. 236; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 407, 509 no. 563; Herrmann 1975, pp. 53–4, 234, colour pl. 176; Wilton 1979, pp. 213–14, 222; Gage 1980, p. 205; Wilton 1980, pp. 97, 153; Butlin 1981, p. 45; Venning 1985.

Exhibited in 1845 with the caption ‘Vide Beale's Voyage, p. 163.’

On the 1854 Schedule Nos. 414 [N00545], 423 [N00546] and 426 [N00547] are listed as 76, 77 and 78, ‘Whale fishing No. 1’ ‘,, No. 2’ and ‘,, No. 3’, each 4'0" × 3'0".

Turner exhibited four pictures of ‘Whalers’, two in 1845 and two in 1846 (see Nos. 415, 423 [N00546] and 426 [N00547]). Three, including this example, were given references in the R.A. catalogue to ‘Beale's Voyage’ by which Turner meant Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale ... to which is added, a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage, first published in 1835 without the Voyage and again, as above, in 1839. In fact, the page references given for this picture and No. 415 both fall within the main body of the text, not the Voyage.

Barry Venning has suggested that Turner probably hoped to sell all four pictures to his patron Elhanan Bicknell, an investor in the Southern Sperm Whale fishery. However, Bicknell's discovery that Turner's final touches of watercolour wiped off No. 415, q.v., coupled with a quarrel over the financing of the engraving of The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ (No. 377 [N00524]), seems to have put an end to this hope.

More importantly, Barry Venning sees the four whaling pictures as two interlinked pairs, the first, exhibited in 1845, set in the Antarctic, while the second, despite the continuing reference to Beale for No. 423 [N00546], in the Arctic. He sees each pair in a narrative sequence, leading from apparent triumph to disaster. Of the two pictures exhibited in 1845 both are given references to Beale's chapter XIII on the ‘Chase and Capture of the Sperm Whale’, but while No. 414 [N00545] follows the text fairly closely, at least up to but not including the moment of the kill, No. 415 departs fairly radically from the text: in particular, the mother ship, which in the text is some distance away from the incident, is brought sufficiently close to balance the ship in No. 414 [N00545] and to suggest that the later incident is a direct consequence of the activities in the first picture.

No. 414 [N00545] illustrates Beale's first account of the pursuit of the sperm whale (ch. XIII, p. 161–17), which is set in the North Pacific near Japan on a calm day, with ‘the sun pouring its intense rays with dazzling brightness’. The whale is harpooned by the leading boat just as it is about to ‘sound’ (p. 163), and then lashes the sea in its agony (pp. 163–4). It dives, and on resurfacing is lanced (p. 164). It breaks away but is pursued by two boats and again harpooned and fatally lanced (p. 166). It dies ‘a victim to the tyranny and selfishness, as well as a wonderful proof of the great power of the mind of man’. The picture is probably a conflation of several episodes in this account, and is probably also indebted to the fourth story on pp. 176–83, in which Beale describes how the harpooners stand in the bows of their boats (pp. 180–81).

There are a number of sketches of whalers in the ‘Whalers’ sketchbook of c. 1844–5 (CCCLIII-6 to 14) and a watercolour of a scarlet whale, annotated ‘I shall use this’, in the ‘Ambleteuse and Wimereux’ sketchbook of May 1845 (CCCLVII-6; repr. in colour Wilton 1980, pl. 16); there is another similar watercolour, annotated ‘He breaks away’, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (see Cormack 1975, no. 52, repr.). None is specifically related to this picture, though Venning suggests that CCCLIII-12 contains its main elements.

Turner had already painted four watercolours of whaling subjects, three of them vignettes and all probably for book illustrations though such illustrations never appeared (Wilton 1979, p. 457, nos. 1307–10, all repr.). Wilton tentatively dates these to about 1839, the date of the enlarged edition of Beale's Natural History, though Venning suggests that these are probably Arctic rather than Antarctic scenes. Even earlier, as Venning points out, Turner had written verses on the death of the explorer Hugh Willoughby while seeking a passage through the Arctic ice in his ‘Greenwich’ sketchbook of c. 1808 (CII, pp. 1 verso to 6 verso). Another stimulus for Turner may have been the sole exhibit by the Hull painter of whaling subjects John Ward at the Royal Academy in 1840, a picture of the Swan and Isabella, two whaling ships frozen into the ice in the notorious winters of 1835–6 and 1836–7.

The Times for 6 May 1845 recognised that Turner ‘has found a new field for his peculiar style in the whale fishery... The greater portion of the picture is one mass of white spray, which so blends with the white clouds of the sky, that the spectator can hardly separate them, while the whiteness is still continued by the sails of the ship, which are placed in defiance of contrast.’ The review goes on to talk of Turner's ‘free, vigorous, fearless embodiment of a moment. To do justice to Turner, it should always be remembered that he is the painter, not of reflections, but of immediate sensations.’ The Morning Chronicle for 7 May pointed out that ‘The only warmth in either picture [this and No. 415] is produced by the red clothing of the sailors in the boats, a selection of colour which, on a close inspection, seems so obviously inconsistent with their vocation, that the spectator is tempted to cry “how absurd”, and to walk away from the spot. But when he has got away some three yards, if he look back he will be astonished to find how these red tints become mellowed in their general effect, and how other rough patches of superfices seem to have melted into thin transparent air, and how in fact, by a wonderful combination of materials all his own, Mr. Turner has produced extraordinary aerial effects.’ The Athenaeum for 17 May, on the other hand, found that ‘no “distance” can “lend enchantment to the view”, nor, by receding, do sky and water, or the whale at No. 50 (computed to be some six hundred feet long) or the craft in all the pictures, gain more clearness and intelligibility than they possess when we are close before them.’ The Literary Gazette for the same date, after saying that ‘It is whispered that Mr. Turner does not mean to exhibit any of his productions after this season’, asserted that ‘His scale of colour has never, so far as we know, been approached by any other man; and however wild it may be, it must still be felt that it is a development of elements essential in nature, carried far above her usual aspects’. The Spectator, after describing the two whaling pictures on 10 May as ‘all light, spray, and clouds; beautiful as harmonies of colour’, added on 24 May that ‘the hues of light are of such prismatic brilliancy, that the sailors are painted of the same bright orange colour that the palaces and gondolas of Venice are decked in’ in Turner's Venetian exhibits of the same year. ‘As light is light all the world over, there may be times when the Northern seas welter in a flood of radiance as dazzling as that which pours down from a Southern sky; but such is not their most characteristic effect.’

Ruskin, speaking of Turner's 1845 exhibits in the later editions of Modern Painters i, describes the two whaling subjects as ‘altogether unworthy of him’.

This picture is painted on a canvas bearing the form of T. Brown stamp that seems to have come into use in about 1839. The appearance of the picture is marred by the darkening of certain resinous areas of paint. There is also some bituminous crackle, flattened impasto, and cleavage that has produced numerous small losses.

The compilers are indebted to John McCoubrey's unpublished lecture, given at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore on 18 April 1975, and to Barry Venning's article, ‘Turner's Whaling Pictures’, to be published in the Burlington Magazine in 1985, for much of the information given in the entries on Nos. 414 [N00545], 423 [N00546] and 426 [N00547].

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