Whalers, Burning, Blubber:

Material, Marks and Meaning in Turner's Whalers Sketchbook

Amy Concannon


Energetic, prodigious and committed to the retention of anything that could prove useful or benefit his posthumous reputation, J.M.W. Turner amassed some 300 paintings and nearly 30,000 works on paper that became the property of the nation after his death in 1851. The Turner Bequest, as it became known, presents myriad opportunities and challenges for the museum and the art historian. How do we organise and interpret those works that are unfinished? What significance do we give to sheets of paper bearing experimental marks, devoid of identifiable forms and opaque in their meaning?

Figure 1

Fig. 1: J.M.W. Turner, Sunset amid Dark Clouds over the Sea (c.1845), watercolour and chalk on paper, 222 x 333 mm, Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856: (D35240)

Figure 2

Fig. 2: J.M.W. Turner Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! (1846) oil on canvas, 90.2. x 120.6 cm, Tate, London. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856 (N000546)

Figure 3

Fig. 3: J.M.W. Turner, Whalers (c.1844-5, chalk and watercolour on paper, 221 x 329 mm, Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856: D35253

Figure 4

Fig. 4: J.M.W. Turner Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves (c.1846), oil on canvas, 89.9. x 120 cm, Tate, London. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856 (N000547)

Figure 5

Fig. 5: J.M.W. Turner, Sea Piece, with Figures in the Foreground (c.1844-5, chalk and watercolour on paper, 221 x 331 mm, Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856: D35252)

Figure 6

Fig. 6: J.M.W. Turner, Whalers at Sea at Sunset (c.1845), chalk and watercolour on paper, 222 x 333 mm, Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856: D35250

Questions of this kind are routinely addressed by the team working to catalogue the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain. This essay emerges from a close study of the Whalers sketchbook conducted with a view to its cataloguing. It discusses the distinctive qualities that set this sketchbook apart from others in the Turner Bequest, particularly Turner’s use of chalk within it, revealing the meaningful point of intersection between its majority subject – whaling – and the materials and techniques used to convey it. Despite its diminutive size, the sketchbook was formed by, and speaks of, a much larger set of themes and processes. This essay thereby considers Turner’s Whalers sketchbook as something more than a portfolio of preparatory work for finished paintings, instead highlighting the profound relationship between its material composition and the iconography and narratives of whaling that it communicates.

Introducing the Whalers Sketchbook

The word ‘sketchbook’ is, technically, a misnomer since the book is now dis-bound and comprises 21 individual leaves of paper, each measuring approximately 22 by 32 cm. Some pages bear a watermark that dates the production of the paper to 1823, suggesting that the book had likely been in Turner’s possession for around two decades before he took it up to explore the theme of whaling in the 1840s. The brand, Whatman, was one he trusted and had been using since the early days of his career in the 1790s. This was a good quality paper that, when coated with an animal-glue size that dried to render the sheet resistant to water, provided a surface strong enough to hold up to sessions of frenzied mark-making in a mixture of different media.

It is Turner’s use of media that sets the Whalers sketchbook apart from others in the Turner Bequest. In general, Turner’s late-life sketchbooks contain either skeletal notations in pencil or extremely swift, free and spare watercolour sketches. Not so with the drawings in this sketchbook. They contain a rare mix of watercolour and chalk, and several are worked to a comparatively greater extent than other drawings from the same period, even other whaling drawings.

The first page in the sketchbook, as numbered by John Ruskin when conducting the first survey of the Turner Bequest, sets the tone for the sketchbook in terms of atmosphere and materials. Sunset amid Dark Clouds over the Sea (Fig. 1) is one of the book’s most fully-worked pages and presents a powerful and tense contrast of sky and sea, light and dark. Although the composition may be pared back and, by comparison to others discussed here, free of iconographical ambiguity, this drawing is technically complex, built up through alternating layers of watercolour and chalk in a broader range of colours and tone than might at first meet the eye. Turner began with broad washes of watercolour: a radial sweep of yellow for the upper sky, a band of red shot through with blue flashes across the centre and deep green for the sea. He may have deepened the overall tone with a wash of grey before working back over the image with a range of chalk crayons. Streaks of yellow chalk animate the sun and its reflection, while undulating lines of red cut through the sea. White chalk delivers the swift movement of a flock of gulls darting and diving at the water’s surface.

The Whalers Sketchbook and Turner’s Whaling Paintings

The dark, brooding atmosphere of this drawing reflects that of the book as a whole; it possesses a more threatening atmospheric scheme than is seen in the paintings. There are no glittering sunrises such as that which accompanies shouts of ‘Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish’ in the painting of the same name (Fig. 2), and while there may be compositional correlations between the drawing Whalers (Fig. 3) and the painting Whalers (Boiling Blubber) (Fig. 4), the sweep of grey wash storm shot through with a bolt of white chalk lightening in the drawing has been replaced by a moon-lit calm. The Arctic of the sketchbook is a far more hostile and bleak environment, one where darkness, ice and blizzards prevail. The drawings are themselves raw and comprised of marks made in dynamic, hurried flourishes communicative of the turbulence and violence of the whale hunt. Turner’s paper Arctic is without the beautiful, glittering veneer it is given on canvas.

Scholarship on the Whalers sketchbook has been primarily concerned to reveal such correlations with Turner’s whaling paintings. The lack of formal resolution in the sketches has, however, given rise to alternative interpretations. In the sketch currently entitled Sea Piece, with Figures in the Foreground (Fig. 5), for example, one scholar has identified the cluster of ‘figures’ in the foreground as preparatory drawings for the jubilant whalers in the painting Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! whilst another has identified the potential for these to be penguins, not humans, likely on account of the shape of some of Turner’s undulating flicks of black chalk.

Whilst such identifications are worthwhile and instructive, developing insight into the evolution of publically exhibited oil paintings, this reliance upon the paintings to decode the sketches diminishes the status of the sketchbook as an artistic statement in its own right. Viewing it as an auxiliary document, a breeding ground for ideas that found their fullest and most worthy expression in paint, not only serves to reinforce the media hierarchy that existed in Turner’s day (and which his achievements in watercolour did so much to break down) but also ignores a vital aspect of his creative process: the means by which he conveyed these ideas, his media. Further research into their material content has revealed illuminating intersections between Turner’s media and his subject. This is centred upon the presence of chalk but also extends to the effects delivered by water on these drawings.

Chalk and Water, Expression and Accident

It was only through my own initial attempts to decipher the drawings’ content that I came to focus more intently on the media and techniques Turner deployed in their creation, as in the case of the drawing currently catalogued under the title Whalers at Sea at Sunset (Fig. 6). While Turner’s sunsets are often fiery, the distribution of red in the sky is suggestive of flames soaring upwards, shaped by wind on the open sea. This could be a blazing shipwreck, or the burning of blubber on board a whaling ship, a process Turner would have read about in texts like Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1835). Either way, its intensity is delivered by the thickly laid black chalk. At the centre of the sheet, its thick, rough layers evoke the smouldering embers of a fire; the pigment then radiates out, smoke-like, having been dispersed with a stump of leather, or more likely Turner’s finger.

This and other sheets in the Whalers sketchbook were evidently worked swiftly, as was his custom when sketching from life or exploring compositions at this late stage in his practice. Yet while chalk’s pliability and intense pigmentation made it an efficient tool for the expression of ideas, it was unusual for Turner to use it, let alone rely so extensively upon it as he does in the Whalers sketchbook. Why might this be? One answer might lie in a comment Turner made in regard to Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), a painting exhibited three years before the first of his Whalers canvases. Challenged by fellow painter George Jones about the blackness of the ship’s sails, Turner retorted, “I only wish I had any colour to make them blacker”. The multiple layers of pigment in the Whalers sketches, built up through layers of watercolour and chalk, suggest that here, too, he was searching for a black to match his sombre theme.

The colours used in the Whalers sketchbook – white, black, red and yellow – correspond with the hues of natural chalk deposits, formed from the microscopic skeletons of sea plankton crushed and decayed over millennia. By the mid-nineteenth century, artists were increasingly relying on fabricated chalks, which were cheaper and widely available in a range of densities. To manufacture chalk, burnt and powdered organic matter – wood, ivory, bone, or oil – would be mixed with a gum binder and formed into pencil shapes; to make them harder they might be tempered with some form of oil, or wax. While bone, oil and wax were themselves valuable by-products of the whaling industry, it is in the sketchbook’s reliance upon black chalk, the hue that most predominates, that its most potent connection with its subject lies.

The most common black chalk formula had a base of a pigment called lamp black, so-called because it was traditionally collected from the inside of oil lamp mantles. Given that the most widely used oil in lamps in the mid-nineteenth century was whale oil, this pigment bears a direct link with the whaling industry. There is a parallel here in Turner’s use of spermaceti wax, another whaling by-product (extracted from the heads of sperm whales), in his late work. Mixed into colour, spermaceti wax helped it spread further across the canvas and dried with a heavily impasted texture. Although not found in his whaling paintings, the presence of spermaceti wax in work from the same period provides a tangible link between the whaling industry and Turner’s studio. I sincerely doubt Turner employed black chalk in his whaling sketches specifically because of its likely roots in the very act depicted in the Whalers sketchbook. Nonetheless, his heavy application of it, particularly in ways that manipulate its friable particulate-heavy texture in the evocation of fire, and its very status as a substance derived from the combustion of whale oil engenders a profound material connectedness to his subject.

Figure 7

Fig. 7: J.M.W. Turner, Burning Blubber (c.1844-5, watercolour and chalk on paper, 218 x 330 mm, Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856: D35246

In Burning Blubber (Fig. 7), which gives a closer angle of view on to the dark and gruesome business of the whale hunt, Turner worked watercolour over his chalk drawing, seemingly melding the two media together with his fingers in dramatic upwards sweeps. It is messy and there no clearly defined forms. Does the yellow represent the burning of a whale’s body on ship or are we seeing a captive whale flailing and throwing up shots of water as the sun sets? Either way, Turner’s technique powerfully conveys a sense of the speed, confusion and violence of the whale hunt. Going further, we might see the drawing’s seamless combination of chalk and watercolour and lack of formal definition as analogous to whaling’s messy processes, whereby blood and oil saturated and lingered upon every permeable surface, becoming the linking matter between cloth, wood and skin. Similarly, across this sketchbook the sea, the whales, the boats and the men are unified by Turner’s application of colour. His limited palette follows no strict separation. Red is fire and blood, but also men and boats; black is the whale, sea, men and boats but also the sky and the elements.

One of the more typical technical effects in this sketchbook is Turner’s use of watercolour to evoke precipitation, for example in arctic blizzards delivered by swirling sweeps of water-borne pigment such as that in Whalers [See Fig. 3]. By comparison to the rough texture of chalk, these areas bear a smooth fluidity appropriate to their meaning. Scrutiny of these effects and the techniques Turner used to create them has been made much more difficult, however, by the effects of the Thames flood which hit Millbank in 1928, flooding lower ground floor galleries and the basement, where the collection was stored. Water damage to the Whalers sketchbook sustained during the flood has blurred the lines between determined effects and accidental ones.

In his lifetime, Turner was known to have submerged papers in baths of water as a means of achieving a smooth, flat cover of colour; out of Turner’s control, the submersion of the Whalers sketchbook has made its own material contribution to the sense of tumult inherent in his envisioning of the whalers’ world. It was perhaps ironic coincidence, then, that this sketchbook, devoted to the struggle at sea between man and whale, was itself swallowed and materially transformed by the element that gave rise to its contents.