J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner A Harpooned Whale 1845

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
A Harpooned Whale 1845
Turner Bequest CCCLVII 6
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 238 x 336 mm
Inscribed by Turner in pencil ‘I shall [?use] this’ towards bottom left
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘6’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVII 6’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This sketch depicts a bloody moment in the midst of a whale hunt. As the creature thrashes in the water and raises its tail high into the air, a pair of large sail boats, presumably whaling vessels, list on the horizon as if disturbed by the churning of the sea. Rapid, choppy brush-work in grey, blue, and yellow describes the motion of the waves while dashes and washes of crimson betray the whale’s haemorrhaging harpoon injuries. Two bold strokes towards the animal’s head may represent the expulsion of blood-stained seawater from its blowholes.
The subject of a whale hunt is exceptional in a sketchbook otherwise devoted to unpopulated coastal scenery, although Andrew Wilton suggests that The Whaler, a watercolour sketch on the same theme inscribed ‘He breaks away’ (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), may have originated in the present book.1 Certainly, Finberg noticed that a folio had been removed when he catalogued the volume in its bound state.2
At the same time, however, whale hunting was at this time at the forefront of Turner’s artistic agenda. The painter’s interest in such scenes dates back to the mid to late 1830s although it peaked in 1845–6 with the exhibition of four large oil paintings on the whaling industry at the Royal Academy.3 Whalers of about 1845 (Metropolitan Museum, New York), depicts a similar moment in a whale hunt and was acquired by Elhanan Bicknell, proprietor of the Southern Sperm Whale fishery.4 The other three paintings in this series form part of the Turner Bequest and feature two further harpooned whales and a scene of blubber-boiling on an ice sheet (Tate N00545–N00547).5 Turner’s inscription on the sketch, ‘I shall [?use] this’, points with unusual clarity to the connections between his drawing practices and the invention of such large-scale compositions.
Historians agree on the assumption that this imagery was largely confected out of literary and illustrative material rather than first-hand observation.6 In this instance, Peter Bicknell proposes engraved plates from Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), from which Turner extracted quotes to accompany his whaling exhibition pieces, as a likely source for this sketch.7
As noted in Cormack 1975, p.74; Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.469 no.1411, reproduced; see also the watercolour The Whaler: ‘Hurrah boys’, ibid. no.1412, another possible leaf (currently untraced).
Finberg 1909, vol.II, p.1167.
Wallace 2001, p.378.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.261–3 no.415, pl.425.
Ibid., pp.260–1 no.414, pl.424; pp.267–8 no.423, pl.426; 270–1 no. 426, pl.427.
Brown 1987, p.12.
Bicknell 1985, p.23 note 9.
Blank; the sheet was not available for inspection out of its frame at the time of cataloguing.

John Chu
December 2013

How to cite

John Chu, ‘A Harpooned Whale 1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, December 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, April 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-harpooned-whale-r1173490, accessed 01 April 2020.