‘Suffer a Sea-Change’: Turner, Painting, Drowning
That medium appeared at Greenwich as a means of redressing the apparently diminished role of both élite example and popular heroism in a railway age, as a proactive presence capable of working its magic upon the political and moral sensibilities of its viewers decades, even centuries, after its own production.9 For Clarke (and he was merely echoed by the Naval Gallery’s other commentators), painting’s ‘proper application’ was to instantiate a past greatness that might thereby be raised up, resurfacing in the present to powerful (if reactionary) social and cultural effect.
This sense of painting’s ability to transcend the impact of change and the stark temporal difference wrought by modernity referenced the broader reconception of art’s powers which had been elaborated in aesthetic theory since the late eighteenth century. There, art had increasingly been deemed capable of challenging the distance not only between past and present but also between seeing and feeling.10 Furthermore, by the time that Clarke put pen to paper in the 1840s, the notion that both painters and their paintings might have such transformative effects on their viewers had come to be associated in particular with the works of one artist: Turner.
He was, after all, an artist who apparently wanted to be buried in one of his pictures, and whose Royal Academy exhibits in 1842 included both this painting and Peace – Burial at Sea (fig.6), two works which between them triangulate painting, drowning and death.34 The purported subject-matter of Snow Storm implies the costs of such a voyage into the unknown: the possibility of a disaster which can only be kept at bay by the careful and constant monitoring of one’s proximity to the seabed, a perfect metaphor for the self-reflective, self-scrutinising methods of the artist, and indeed the individual, within modernity. Estranged from the safe havens of established convention by conspicuous historical change, the (artistic) subject was now obliged or liberated – Turner would have it both ways, practising a melancholic exuberance into old age – to travel under their own steam.
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.37
An earlier version of this text was delivered at the conference The Sublime in Crisis? New Perspectives on the Sublime in British Visual Culture 1760–1900, held at Tate Britain in September 2009.
How to cite
Sarah Monks, ‘‘Suffer a Sea-Change’: Turner, Painting, Drowning’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www