The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

‘Suffer a Sea-Change’: Turner, Painting, Drowning

Sarah Monks

The artist J.M.W. Turner was able to suggest great depth and gravitational force in his depictions of seawater. Sarah Monks looks at the ways in which these qualities conveyed new forms of sublime experience.
‘Set or raised aloft, high up’; ‘Rising to a great height, lofty, towering’; ‘Exalted’; ‘Supreme’: by dictionary definition, ‘sublime’ signifies a state of elevation through which ascent towards physical or metaphorical heights brings about transcendence.1 ‘Go, fell the timber of yon’ lofty grove’, the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744) had the Greek author Homer say in The Odyssey, ‘And form a Raft, and build the rising ship, / Sublime to bear thee o’er the gloomy deep’.2 Yet, as these lines suggest, ‘sublime’ (etymologically perhaps sub limen, up to a high threshold) always carries with it – even if only as trace memory – that over which it climbs or floats: ‘the gloomy deep’.
Pope quickly turned to this alternative site or state of ‘sub’ to which sublimity is umbilically attached but from which it had to be distinguished if transcendent achievement, poetic or otherwise, was to remain clear in an increasingly competitive world. He therefore set about defining this realm which lay beneath the sublime’s aerial firmament, a realm which reaches down into the depths and which is characterised by both dazzling material riches and mysterious profundities: ‘The Sublime of Nature is the Sky, the Sun, Moon, Stars, &c. The Profound of Nature is Gold, Pearls, precious Stones, and the Treasures of the Deep, which are [as] inestimable as unknown.’ In Pope’s satirical account (his tongue was firmly in his cheek here), these depths are the imaginary province to which the second-rate artist seeking wealth and patronage aspires, the decidedly sub par counterpart to those exalted heights of poetic sublimity at which their more talented and judicious colleagues arrive. Mediocre writers and painters therefore practise (Pope argued) an ‘Art of Sinking’, a descent into that jarring mixture of obscure nonsense and trivial or gaudy allusions which nevertheless seemed to represent poetic depth to the pretentious. By ‘keeping under Water’, the artist could therefore achieve precisely that over which the sublime soared: ‘the Bottom’ of his art.3 This is a wholesale revision of the ancient Greek term ‘bathos’, whose original reference to ‘depth’ remains in the technical terms for deep-sea diving equipment, the ocean bed and its measurement yet whose rhetorical formulation by Pope – as a ‘ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace ... anticlimax’ – is now dominant.4 Seeking to consolidate an opposition between high and low, Pope’s ‘bathos’ is shot through with its divisive social implications, which find form in the fictive poetic examples – among them the lady who acts like a street hawker and the footman who speaks like a prince – with which he illustrates his account.5
By engaging with the implications of ‘beneath’, of the sub- in the sublime, this article sets out to challenge any sense of the sublime as necessarily already ascendant, as always and easily cut free from its murky remnant. In particular, this article will focus on the ways in which J.M.W. Turner set about suggesting, to an extent which is unprecedented in the visual representation of water, what it might be to be beneath – beneath the horizon, beneath the water and beneath paint. The broader implications of this ‘submarine’ state for the forms of subjectivity at stake in Turner’s work will be hinted at towards the end but, by way of instructive analogy, I want to begin with a metropolitan site which was all but given over in the early nineteenth century to the idea that paintings and people speak from the deep, in a process which seemed to conjure both the sublime and the subliminal.
Easter Amusements – The Greenwich Pensioners … (with biographical details on each) The Illustrated London News 13 April 1844, p.233
Easter Amusements – The Greenwich Pensioners … (with biographical details on each) The Illustrated London News 13 April 1844, p.233
Photo © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
A living museum, Greenwich had become (within a few decades of the battle of Trafalgar) the ‘resting place’ of ‘national prowess on the ... ocean’, an entire pantheon to a now-past greatness whose human and cultural fragments were placed on conspicuous display in order that ‘a commercial world’ be reminded of its moral debts.6 For the architects of nineteenth-century Greenwich’s transformation, all members of London’s cultural élite, those debts were – it should be understood by the site’s visitors – owed to the political status quo, to the charismatic leadership naturally possessed by those of rank and to the heartfelt obedience of those who served under them. The latter could still be found in abundance at Greenwich, old sailors, the pensioned and policed veterans of naval warfare, who – when they were not to be found scattered around Greenwich Hospital like wreckage on the sea bed – were employed to serve as the mouthpieces for this sanctioned vision of the past (fig.1). As guides to the growing collection of portraits and seascapes hung in the nation’s ‘Naval Gallery’ (which covered the walls of the Painted Hall from 1824 onwards), the Pensioners’ attentive engagement with these art works was figured as an exemplary lesson in painting’s capacity to prompt and restore affective patriotism. As the journalist Henry Clarke put it in 1842:
Every blue-jacket [that is, every old sailor], may now ... reclaim from oblivion some anecdote of courage or of kindness. An attentive public, in listening to the unaffected strain, will learn to respect the knowledge displayed, and the generous effusions of a brave man’s heart ... From such observations a candid and judicious artist may learn how to improve his compositions: why some pictures ... fail to call forth the feelings of an unsophisticated public; whilst ... one of rude aspect, may kindle all the outward expression of deep-rooted sympathy.
The impact of such Pensioner soliloquies would therefore be perceived not only ‘in the improved taste ... and in the improved feelings’ of that ‘attentive public’ but also in the output of contemporary artists who, listening to the sailor’s ekphrastic recovery ‘from oblivion’ of past officer-class merit, might ‘learn how to improve his compositions’ so that they appealed to the better sentiments of plebeian audiences.7 Moreover, by inhabiting a public exhibition space aimed at the articulation of conservative ideals to an audience of increasingly – and, to some minds, worryingly – socially enfranchised urban day-trippers, painting was made to illustrate self-sacrifice in the name of a greater good. Only then, Clarke claimed, are ‘the arts of peace’made to put forth their best energies – to shed their lustre on the history of a nation’s bravest sons, and tempt the early germs of enthusiasm to rivalry with past greatness. This is the proper application of the art of painting.8
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.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Fishermen at Sea' exhibited 1796
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fishermen at Sea exhibited 1796
Tate T01585
In 1796, the year after the Naval Gallery had first been mooted, Fishermen at Sea (fig.2) appeared at the Royal Academy, the first oil painting to be exhibited by this artist, barely out of his teens. Hung (as was usual for lesser-known painters) in the Academy’s Ante Room, Fishermen at Sea shows Turner deploying his work’s relatively gloomy destination to his own ends by portraying the dazzling effects of searing moonlight as it emerges through a parting in the clouds to glow upon sea-water.11 As one reviewer noted, Turner had used significant artistic licence here to provide his scene with two pools of reflected moonlight rather than one; the overall effect was enough to draw his viewers in to gaze more closely upon his own public emergence and breakthrough as oil painter.12 Still almost unknown, Turner here produced a painting which – variously considered by exhibition critics to be the result of empirical observation or a more theoretical exercise in the laws of light – ‘has not its superior within the walls of the Academy’.13 It was not, one critic thought, an auspicious subject (‘Moon-lights are trite subjects’, he said) but Fishermen at Seaappeared to transcend the restrictions of literal meaning and cater immediately to its viewers’ capacity for aesthetic responsiveness. For exhibition critics, this was a picture about how things ‘dimly seen through the gloom of the night’ are indistinct and almost undeterminable, and how a boat might be about to be buoyed up by the ‘undulation’ of tidal waters.14 Indeed, this painting plays on contrasts of surface and depth just as it plays on the paradox of simultaneous illumination and obscurity. The sea’s unseen depths are therefore suggestively alluded to in the foreground study of light’s different effects upon and through water whilst, on the horizon, that water appears now as sheer sparkling surface.
‘As a sea-piece this picture is effective’, declared one critic, in a phrase which explains the work’s impact on the one hand and damns with faint praise on the other.15 For this was a genre which seemed to be practised only by artists who had (in the words of another) ‘too servilely followed the steps of each other, and given us Pictures more like japanned tea-boards, with ships and boats on a smooth and glassy surface, than adequate representations of that inconstant, boisterous and ever changing element’.16 Only Turner seemed to his commentators to have recognised the sea’s redesignation in contemporary culture as a space where, par excellence, transcendent mastery might be realised, and where the real extent of one’s physical, moral and aesthetic responsiveness might be revealed. As the Naval Chronicle (not a publication ordinarily given to philosophical enquiry) would put it in the 1790s, the sea appeared to its viewers only as it exists in the mind of the beholder: if he does not possess a soul sufficiently enlarged to feel the sublimity and endless variety of such a scene, he should daily endeavour to awaken a sense within him, which either the force of habit has closed, or the want of a discriminating taste has never called forth.17
Through such statements (and students of literary romanticism will know they are not hard to find during this period), the sea was emphatically assigned the status of testing ground for a self able to convert the world into indicative sensual experience. At once deeply material and dematerialised, both ‘boisterous element’ and something existing ‘in the mind of the beholder’, the sea’s depiction presented Turner with distinct challenges, among which was the potential capacity of one possessed with ‘genius and judgment’ to revive a moribund pictorial genre as the grounds for an ‘effective’ art of aesthetic invention and experiment.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Shipwreck' exhibited 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Shipwreck exhibited 1805
Tate N00476
An analysis of Turner’s long engagement with these challenges, which lasted into his final years, would more than challenge the boundaries of this article. Certainly, we can find repeated evidence for his radically three-dimensional conception of the painted seascape as implying X, Y and Z co-ordinates, in images which push the planar significance of the genre’s conventional elements (see, for example, fig.3). To an unprecedented degree, foreground buoys are highlighted in his seascapes (in the images and their titles);18 ships tip towards us, capsized and sinking; men at sea appear to reach down into water to grab ropes, nets, bodies and oranges,19 or row away from us in boats bearing the anchors with which ships will be secured to the seabed.20 Elsewhere, anchors and mooring rings rest on shorelines between tidal waters and solid ground, where fish from the sea are laid out, filleted and consumed.21 This emphasis upon flotation and the possibility of descent towards a deeper ground serves not only to describe the sea as a gravitational body which both holds up and pulls down but also to draw our attention to the relation between surface and depth in a manner with metaphorical implications for the relationship between painting and the painter. Thus, while George Beaumont’s comment about Turner’s Calais Pier 1803 (National Gallery, London) that the water is ‘like the veins on a marble slab’ seems to describe the almost sculptural treatment of this element, that treatment nevertheless contains a pointed emphasis upon the white foam that salt water produces in its own wake, the sea serving not only to buoy up a human world but also as a surface upon which rough, involuntary and inchoate pattern is produced from somewhere beneath, in a manner analogous to the sketchbook and canvas of the modern responsive artist.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth' exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842
Tate N00530
The multilayered relationship between surface and depth suggested here existed alongside an equally complex relationship between past and present in Turner’s work.22 As he matured into old age, Turner’s experience as a modern subject, existing in the as-yet uncharted space between these axes, would increasingly find concrete form in the transformation of his historical status wrought by the history of, and market for, art as it developed in the nineteenth century. At once a contemporary artist and an Old Master, his own absorption and transfiguration by painting alone was a process which Turner would reflect upon from his sixties and as he began ‘breaking up fast’ in his final years.23 Lying on his deathbed, cared for by the wife of a man who had drowned, Turner asked his fellow artist David Roberts a question which smacks of remarkable defiance against nature and history: ‘So I am to become a nonentity, am I?’24 The spectres of dissolution and its defiance repeatedly characterise his late seascapes, and it is on one of these – Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (fig.4) – that any discussion of Turner’s relationship with the sublimity of drowning must focus.
Exhibited as ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich’, this painting makes explicit claims (in its image and in its title) to first-hand experience. As so often in Turner’s work, that experience is one in which nature and human culture work across and against each other. In its confrontation with raw unassailable forces beyond human determination, that culture’s attempts to organise and cut through the world in its own interests (courtesy of engines, boats and straight-ahead navigation) are cast as a hubris familiar from ancient mythology. And in his desperate attempt to remain upright and proceed through space on his own terms – that is, to resist being stilled, swallowed and negated – man burns out both himself and his resources, the overworked engine that drives the boat’s thrashing wheel leaving a foul scorchmark across the sky. There, even the systematisation of the visual into language appears futile, the boat’s distress signal appearing little more than a transient spectacle already most clearly figured by its own feeble remnants: a rocket and red cinders falling, like Icarus and his feathers, into the sea.25 The vessel’s crew (indicated perhaps by a figure who reaches down to the water from directly beneath the mast) ‘go by the lead’, plumbing the depths in order to gauge their proximity to the bottom and to death.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Sun of Venice Going to Sea' exhibited 1843
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Sun of Venice Going to Sea exhibited 1843
Tate N00535
That such an effort will result in only temporary and apparent truths is suggested by the water itself, which threatens at one point to pull the vessel down and at the next (and most especially in the left-hand side of the painting) to be capable of throwing it up into the heavens. Like the fold, the wave serves as a means of transporting bodies between and through different states:26 the subjects of Turner’s seascapes are swept up, down and along by his waves, and therefore undergo a giddying ‘alteration’27 between being borne aloft and consumed, between transcendence and decomposition.28 In this painting, the characteristically circular composition of his late seascapes acts as an engine, forcefully propelling the painting’s effects out and into our space, so that Turner’s waves serve as both figures and vehicles for an aesthetic experience in which the image might enfold its viewer.29Yet the circular format also leaves us in little doubt about the real source and sole site of that experience: the artist, around whom the world seems to revolve and who compels its movements like a more powerful Canute.30 This painting is perhaps the pinnacle of Turner’s ability to carve multiple axes within pictorial space. At its heart is a large flash of whitish paint which might represent the glaring light cast by the flare, or the spray of towering waves similar to those we see in the foreground, or indeed the ghost of a sail (of a kind that Turner would hymn – and whose extinction he would seem to mourn – in The Sun of Venice Going to Sea fig.5).31 In any case, this area of the image also appears both as a highly worked patch of thick paint, at one point almost obliterating the boat’s mast, and as the compensatory interlude between glowering expanses of darkness which seem to press in upon it from all sides. The phantom of a figure (another of Turner’s onboard surrogates perhaps, to join ‘Van Tromp’ and Ulysses from earlier works) stands in its midst. Somewhere between field experiment and self experiment, Snow Storm signals Turner’s buccaneering desire to assume art in extremis, inserting himself into its raw force as heroic test case.
In a painting which highlights the readiness of its ‘Author’ to find himself adrift from his cultural inheritance, compelled to devise his own pictorial materials, language and forms whilst exercising his own criteria about their use, it is significant that the resulting image depicts not a scene of clear departure or arrival but rather a moment out at sea and mid-voyage. Snow Storm is about artistic process (‘making Signals’) rather than product; indeed, it seems to be a signal fired off from the very midst of painting. What Turner reveals himself to have been caught up in here is therefore less the agonies involved in taking leave of tradition (or those of establishing the new) than the full whiteout of art itself, away from its ports of call.32
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Peace - Burial at Sea' exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842
Tate N00528
This painting therefore indicates – even beyond the titular myth of its origin – a substantial shift in the relationship between art and embodied knowledge. Since the late seventeenth century, marine painters had worked with a perspectival formula which enabled them to stage an expansive world of freely circulating bodies as if seen, known and gauged by an embodied viewer. In its systematic relation of horizon line and eye level, that formula was able to articulate a searching, speculative regard which was ambitious because it looked forward, projecting knowledge and possession out to vision’s furthest reaches. In turn, this perspectival formula helped to constitute the self as taking place before a visible world within which it found its capacities and its clear limits, an effect underlined by the marine painter’s established repertoire, which ran between calm and storm, the beautiful and the sublime. Turner shattered the horizon and, with that, this settled epistemology. Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth concerns itself not with knowledge of the world as an entity ‘over there’, but with knowledge of the self as an isolated body immersed within, and overtaken by, inchoate experience; system, whether perspectival or mechanical, has little purchase here. What Turner has observed (and simultaneously staged) is less the world and its elemental forms than the processes of painting and thought: this work seems to depict its own creation. In particular, the picture (its title opening with a blizzard of alliteration) performs the moment before knowledge, when vision, thought and bodily experience are effectively equivalent and have yet to tip over into the re-cognition that will define them as distinct, and differently valued, types of ‘knowledge’.33 A chaotic miasma from which form only hesitantly and incompletely emerges, Turner’s painting approximates the blank space – the khora, prior to knowledge, words and meaning – into which origins are born in philosophical thought. Significantly, this primordial state of suspended possibilities is no longer implied by the horizon but rather constitutes the entirety of the scene before us. Vaguely discernible within it is the upright human figure (the figure for but not necessarily of Turner himself) around which the image is organised. At once inside and outside the seascape, the artist is now its sole structural predicate, taking the place of both the horizon line and its viewer. Turner seems to speak to us from over there, from the underside of painting, matter and pure, asocial experience.
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.
Read as an image of culture in tension with nature or as an allegory of artistic originality, Snow Storm shows Daedalus’s realm of human ingenuity and creation at once assaulted and reasserted. But his is not the only mythology conjured by this picture of tempest. In a veiled reference to the recent disaster of the Fairy (which had left Harwich in November 1840, sinking with all hands shortly afterwards), Turner’s title conjures the malign sprite Ariel from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.35 Turner’s evocation of this play is more than passing fancy or allusion.36 For, in his most significant intervention into the narrative, Ariel whispers into the ear of shipwrecked Ferdinand a beautiful lie about drowning:
Full fathoms five thy father lies;
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
In Ariel’s song, Ferdinand’s father Alonso survives his drowning in mutated form, having been transformed into something ‘rich and strange’ courtesy of a merger with his new environment. Alonso has not vanished or faded but rather has undergone a liquefying ‘sea-change’, his difference from his surroundings diluted to the point that his body has become (in the words of the literature theorist Ian Baucom) ‘a catalog of the things that wash over it’, a body of work.38 As a figure for art’s capacity to deceive and delight, ‘Ariel’ also refers us back to Turner’s status as artist and, perhaps, to the sea itself, which appears in painting and play alike as a space of deception and artifice,39 reaching out like the sailor’s tropical delirium ‘calenture’ to challenge settled distinctions between high and low, art and sinking.40


‘sublime, a. and n.’, Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, accessed 20 April 2010.
Homer, The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Alexander Pope, Elijah Fenton and William Broome, 5 vols., vol.2, London 1725–6, p.14.
‘Martin Scriblerus’ [Alexander Pope], ‘Peri Bathous: or The Art of Sinking in Poetry’, in Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, second edition, 2 vols., vol.2, Dublin 1728, pp.91–2.
See ‘bathy-’ and ‘bathos’, Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, accessed 20 April 2010. See Freya Johnston, Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking 1709–1791, Oxford 2005, on Johnson’s ironic deployment of Pope’s ‘bathos’.
‘Martin Scriblerus’, [Alexander Pope], ‘Peri Bathous: or The Art of Sinking in Poetry’, p.93.
Henry G. Clarke, The Naval Gallery, with a Description of the Painted Hall and Chapel, London 1842, p.v.
Clarke, The Naval Gallery, pp.v–vii. Such scenes gained extra weight after 1841, when the gallery was opened free of charge to all sailors every day, and then to the general public on Mondays and Fridays: see Report from Select Committee on National Monuments and Works of Art, London, 16 June 1841, pp.v–vi, in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, accessed 18 March 2009, and The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, vol.2, no.4, 23 July 1842, p.64. See Brandon Taylor, Art for the Nation: Exhibitions and the London Public, 1747–2001, Manchester 1999, pp.29–66, on contemporary debates about opening national collections to the general public.
The city’s first passenger train line, the London and Greenwich Railway, had begun to deliver its (many thousands of) passengers on day trips from central London in 1838: see Clive Aslet, The Story of Greenwich, London 1999, pp.246–55.
See Gavin Budge (ed.), Aesthetics and the Picturesque, 1795–1840, 6 vols., Bristol 2001; Jonah Siegel, Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art, Princeton 2000; Paul Mattick Jr, Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art, Cambridge 1993, and Stephen Copley and John Whale eds., Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts, 1780–1832, London and New York 1992.
Though one critic thought that the painting ‘would have borne a brighter situation’: London Packet or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, 27 April 1796.
See Companion to the Exhibition, quoted in Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, second edition, 2 vols., New Haven 1984, vol.1, no.1.
London Packet or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, 27 April 1796, in a line that begins, ‘Considered as a study from Nature, or a design on the principles of Nature...’  For comments about Turner’s anonymity in 1797, see The Morning Post, 5 May 1797 and Thomas Green, The Diary of a Lover of Literature, 1810, p.35. One critic knew of him, recognising that (having been a draughtsman) he had ‘strayed from the direct walk of his profession’ in painting seascapes: The Times, 3 May 1797. See Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.3.
London Packet or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, 27 April 1796; Companion to the Exhibition, London, 1796, and ‘Anthony Pasquin’ [John Williams], A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy for 1796, London, 1796, quoted in Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.1.
Companion to the Exhibition, quoted in Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.1.
‘Anthony Pasquin’ [John Williams], A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy for 1797, London 1797, pp.10–11.
Naval Chronicle, vol.1, 1799, p.208, quoted in John Gage, ‘Turner and the Picturesque – I’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.742, January 1965, p.9.
See The Wreck Buoy (c.1807 and 1849, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.428), and Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, going to Sea (1832, private collection; Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.345).
See The Shipwreck 1805, Tate, The Wreck of a Transport Ship c.1810, Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, and Entrance of the Meuse 1819, Tate (Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.139).
See Boats Carrying Out Anchors and Cables to Dutch Men of War, in 1665 1804, Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington DC.
See Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore in Squally Weather 1802, Southampton City Art Gallery and Sun Rising through Vapour; Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish 1807, National Gallery, London (Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, no.69) and Port Ruysdael 1827, Yale Center for British Art.
See David Solkin, (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009.
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A., 2 vols., London 1862, vol.2, pp.272, 274.
See Helen Guiterman, ‘“The Great Painter”: Roberts on Turner’, Turner Studies, vol.9, no.1, Summer 1989, p.6.
See Brian Lukacher, ‘Turner’s Ghost in the Machine: Technology, Textuality, and the 1842 Snow Storm’, Word & Image, vol.6, no.2, April–June 1990, pp.119–37.
See Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, London and New York 2006, and Darren Ambrose and Wahida Khandker, (eds.), Diagrams of Sensation: Deleuze and Aesthetics, Coventry 2005.
See Rosalind Krauss, Bachelors, Cambridge MA 1999, pp.7–8, on Bataille’s concept of alteration as ‘both decomposition (as in corpses) and the total otherness of the sacred (as in ghosts)’, and associated with formless subjects and images. The rapid and alternating movement between different states set in motion by Turner’s seascapes was complemented by a contemporary critical consensus that his was an art which polarised public opinion and was itself by turns glorious and shameful (see, for example, the review of his Royal Academy exhibits in The Examiner, 7 May 1842, and Jerrold Ziff, ‘William Henry Pyne’s “J.M.W. Turner, R.A.”: A Neglected Critic and Essay Remembered’, Turner Studies, vol.6, no.1, 1986, pp.18–25).
Cf. the early nineteenth-century interest in sea-sickness and the effects of dramatic rotation, elevation and descent upon the human brain. See Nicholas J. Wade and U. Norrsell, ‘Cox’s Chair: ‘A Moral and a Medical Mean in the Treatment of Maniacs’, History of Psychiatry, vol.16, no.1, 2005, pp.73–88 on the related rotating centrifugal chairs devised by Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Mason Cox as treatments for the insane in the first decade of the nineteenth century.
See Jörg Traeger, ‘“... As if one’s Eyelids had been Cut Away”: Imagination in Turner, Friedrich, and David’, in Frederick Burwick and Jürgen Klein (eds.), The Romantic Imagination: Literature and Art in England and Germany, Amsterdam 1996, pp.413–34, and Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge MA and London 1990, p.139.
See Lukacher, ‘Turner’s ghost’, p.122: ‘It was the artist’s unique responsiveness to the scene, not the presumed actuality of the scene, that was paramount ... This was a painter’s painting, the drama enacted more at the easel than at the mast.’
See Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, vol.1, p.250–2.
See Hubert Damisch, ‘Robinsonnades I & II’, October, 85, Summer 1998, pp.38–9.
On Turner’s sketching practice as ‘an embodiment of the act of thinking’, see Andrew Wilton, Turner as Draughtsman, Aldershot 2006, pp.78–81.
See Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, vol.1, pp.94–6 for contemporary anecdotes concerning the artist’s express wish that his Dido Building Carthage; or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire 1815, (National Gallery London) should be his burial shroud.
See Charles Ninnis, ‘The Mystery of the Ariel’, Turner Society News, 20 January 1981, pp.6–8.
On Turner’s birthday, see Sam Smiles, ‘Turner: Space, Persona, Authority’, in Dana Arnold and Joanna Sofaer (eds.), Biographies and Space: Placing the Subject in Art and Architecture, London 2008, p.111. For examples of Turner’s Shakespearean subjects, see What You Will! 1822 9 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA), Jessica (1830, Petworth, National Trust), Juliet and her Nurse 1836 (private collection), The Grand Canal (‘Scene – A Street in Venice’) 1837 (The Huntington Library, San Marino, California), as well as the sketches from his visit to Shakespeare’s monument and Stratford circa 1833–6 (Wilton 1101 and Finberg CCXCIII, Tate).
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Vaughan, London 1999, Act 1, Scene 2.
Ian Baucom, ‘Hydrographies’, The Geographical Review, vol.89, no.2, April 1999, p.303. See also the discussion of Jackson Pollock, Sea Change and Full Fathom Five 1947 (Seattle Art Museum and MoMA, New York respectively), in T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven and London 1999, pp.299–305.
See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford and New York 1990, p.70: ‘No work of art can be great, but as it deceives’. The ‘genius’ and ‘mysterious effect’ of Turner’s work had long been understood to be the ‘effect of magic’ produced by ‘this Prospero of the graphic art’: Repository of Arts, June 1812, quoted in Kay Dian Kriz, The Idea of the English Landscape Painter: Genius as Alibi in the Nineteenth Century, New Haven and London 1997, p.1. See also Lukacher, ‘Turner’s Ghost’, pp.128–35.
Since the seventeenth century, the sailor had been thought peculiarly prey to ‘calenture’, a tropical delirium in which he ‘with rapture sees, on the smooth ocean’s azure bed, Enamell’d fields and verdant trees’ (Jonathan Swift, The Bubble: A Poem (Upon the South Sea Project), London 1721, p.vii). Described as a medical condition in early eighteenth-century medical texts such as John Moyle’s Chirurgus Marinus: Or, the Sea-Chirurgien, London 1702, p.226, ‘calenture’ continued to be invoked into the late nineteenth century as a figure for any delirious or drunken passion (see, for example, ‘The Wishing-Cap’, The Examiner, 28 March 1824). Cf. The Spectator, October 1840, p.957 on Turner’s ‘diseased fancies’; ‘the phrensy or delirium under which he labours is only an over-excitement of the sensorium’; quoted in Luckacher, ‘Turner’s Ghost’, p.122).
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.
This essay was first published in issue 14 of Tate Papers in spring 2010. Other papers relating to the project can be found in issue 13.
Sarah Monks is Lecturer in European Art History, School of World Art Studies and Museology, at the University of East Anglia.

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,, accessed 23 May 2024.