Joseph Mallord William Turner

Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves

exhibited 1846

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 899 × 1200 mm
frame: 1288 × 1593 × 183 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

The last of Turner’s whaling paintings shows the boiling of blubber for processing into oil. The creature laid out on the ice at the right of the picture may have been based on a whale caught in the Thames in 1842, as well as on images by other artists.

As the title makes clear, the success of the whalers is threatened by the frozen water. A reference to this incident is made in the companion to this painting which shows the Erebus, a boat the Admiralty had promised, but failed, to send to rescue ships trapped in the ice.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

426. [N00547] Whalers (boiling Blubber) entangled in Flaw Ice, endeavouring to extricate themselves Exh. 1846


Canvas, 35 3/8 × 47 1/4 (90 × 120)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (one of 76–78; see No. 414 [N00545]); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R. A. 1846 (494); Newcastle 1924 (161); New York 1966 (38, repr. p. 60); Edinburgh 1968 (13); Victorian Paintings 1837–1890 Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, September–November 1968 (1); Prague, Bratislava (149, repr.) and Vienna (57, repr.) 1969; Discovery of Harmony Expo Museum of Fine Arts, Osaka, March–October 1970 (IV-228, repr.); Paris 1972 (276, repr.); Dresden (24, repr. in colour on cover) and Berlin (35) 1972; Lisbon 1973 (24, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (524, repr.); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (65, repr.).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; Bell 1901, p. 156 no. 260; Armstrong 1902, p. 236; Falk 1938, p. 185; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 413, 510 no. 578; Wilton 1979, pp. 213–14, 222; Wilton 1980, pp. 97, 153; Venning 1985.

As John McCoubrey has pointed out (in a lecture at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore on 18 April 1975) Greenland whalers did not boil blubber on board ship, unlike the sperm whalers of the South Seas described by Thomas Beale in his chapter XIV on‘Of the “Cutting in” and “Trying out”’ (Natural History of the Sperm Whale 1839, p. 187; for Beale as a source of Turner's whaling pictures see Nos. 414 [N00545], 415 and 423 [N00546]). McCoubrey suggests that Turner's interest in the contrast between cold ice and the dramatic glow created by boiling blubber was inspired in part by the description of ‘trying-out’ in F.D. Bennett's Narrative of a Whaling Voyage round the Globe ... with an Account of Southern Wales, the Sperm Whale Fishery 1840, pp. 211–12. The same book also contains a comparison between the sperm whale and the Arctic or Greenland whale (pp. 213–22). Turner's interest in the Arctic, which was also reflected in his reference to the ‘Erebus’ in the title to No. 423, may have been spurred by F. W. Beechey's A Voyage of Discovery towards the North Pole ... to which is added, a Summary of all the Early Attempts to Reach the Pacific by Way of the Pole 1843. This contains several descriptions of ships forcing their way through flaw and ‘brush’ ice and being trapped. John Gage (exh. cat., Paris 1972) has suggested a further possible source in the Rev. Thomas Gisborne's Walks in a Forest 1794, which includes a description of Monk's expedition of 1619 lighting fires on the ice to unfreeze barrels of gin. Indeed it is possible, as Judy Egerton has pointed out, that Turner's apparent inaccuracy in showing Greenland whalers boiling blubber was done deliberately, to show them using this means to thaw out the ice.

Barry Venning, who sees this picture as the second of a pair depicting whaling in the Arctic, sees the action as the pessimistic conclusion of that begun in No. 423 [N00546], q.v.: while the crew have been boiling the blubber seen being removed from the carcass of the whale in the companion picture, the ship has become frozen in the ice, as in the disastrous winters of 1835–6 and 1836–7. However, whereas the two whaling pictures of 1845 were both exhibited in the East Room, the two of 1846 were hung one in the East Room, the other in the West Room, which implies that even if Turner had wanted them to be seen as companions, he had failed to get them hung as such.

Of the sketches in the ‘Whalers’ sketchbook two seem to show the dramatic effect of boiling blubber, while a third shows the same general composition as the picture together with the detail of the anchor buried in the ice in the foreground (CCCLIII–6, 7 and 8).

After its abuse of ‘Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus’ (see No. 423 [N00546]) the Art Union for June 1846 was relatively kind to this picture. ‘There is a charming association of colour here—the emerald green tells with exceeding freshness; but it would be impossible to define anything in the composition save the rigging of the ship’. The Athenaeum for 9 May, after mentioning Turner's usual ‘congeries of yellows, reds, and blues, ticketed with strange titles having no apparent connexion with the heaps of colour before us’, continued of this work that it presented ‘something ... more tangible ... one can make forms out of those masses of beautiful, though almost chaotic colours. The sea-green hue of the ice, the flicker of the sunbeam on the waves, the boiling of the blubber, and the tall forms of the ice-bound vessels, make up an interesting picture’.

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

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