Sarah Monks

University of East Anglia

Figure 1

Fig. 1: J.M.W. Turner, Whalers (c.1845) oil on canvas, 91.1. x 121.9cm Tate, London. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856 (N000545)

In their content and in their physical form, Turner’s four whaling pictures present us with a scene of heightened materialism: in each, a set of experiences associated with slaughter, its painterly depiction and its spectacle are not just articulated but empathetically thematised by the extraordinarily emphatic, insistent character of their rendering.[1] (Fig. 1) As The Times’s critic wrote in response to the first of them – two canvases entitled simply Whalers, now in Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1845: “The greater portion of the picture is one mass of white spray, which so blends with the white clouds of the sky, that the spectator can hardly separate them, while the whiteness is still continued by the sails of the ship, which are placed in defiance [that is, Turner’s defiance] of contrast”. Turner’s whaling paintings were, it seemed, afree, vigorous, fearless embodiment of the effect of a moment”, and Turner himself was therefore “the painter, not of reflections, but of immediate sensations”.

And yet, although such an aestheticizing response seems explicitly invited by the material character of Turner’s whaling pictures, that response sits uneasily beside another, equally viable, response which acknowledges that these works were produced by an artist who wanted to sell them, and were therefore intended to appeal to potential buyers, before taking on board the likelihood that Turner here deployed both his artistry and the imagery of slaughter in order to cultivate a particular patron: Elhanan Bicknell, who bought (and soon returned) the painting now in New York and whose fortune had been made from that slaughter, as London’s leading dealer in sperm whale oil.

Turner’s whaling pictures therefore seem to present us with an interpretative quandary: how to square one kind of materialism – a ‘materialist’ history of art which considers artistic production in light of patronage, the market and career strategy – with another, an attention to the aesthetic ‘matter’ of painting itself. That quandary is only intensified by these pictures’ subject matter, the killing, dissection and rendering into matter of an animal (to quote The Times’s critic again, the “large dark lump” that is at the heart of these paintings), a story which concerns market imperatives, and the material processes and moral choices they impel.[2]

I shall return to these issues of interpretation, but first I’d like to offer some brief thoughts on Turner’s pictures themselves, by way of three passages of response, the “effects of moments” in front of the canvases.

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)

1: Blood, grease and bone: in all four paintings, the palette is entirely that of the whale, which thereby sets the tone. The whale also sets the tempo – the rapidity of the paintwork, those great arcs of paint, keep time with, meet the whale as it stirs, thrashes, lifts itself. The whale’s heartbeat? Its view? In the New York painting, we seem to be in the water – do we look through animal eyes, is this animal vision? These paintings are both depictions of events and emphatically events themselves. (Fig. 2) In the Erebus painting, note the strange empty space in the centre of the composition, dividing the onlookers, only a few of whom seem clearly to be celebrating anything, the majority more ambiguous in mood and gesture, some as if trying to leave or look away from the scene. The bitter irony of the palette knife’s ‘mimetic’ use to stab and scrape the paint onto the surface of canvases depicting the hunting and rendering of an animal for fat.

2: Occam’s Razor would say that these paintings are themselves commercial gambits, paintings for money. Is Turner complicit, inciting his own ‘capture’ for the material effects he can yield? And is he grimacing as he does so, rearing up against the hand that feeds him? Are these pictures of the hunting, capture, killing and fragmentation, dissolution, of a whale allegories of the market’s reach, of its capacity to shatter, destroy, galvanise, terrorise, organise resources, deliver experiences? These paintings seem both to reflect upon, and be an instantiation of, the market’s operations and effects.

3: Is Turner tearing open the gaping wound between the material conditions of modern art and its moral, emotional, semantic possibilities? Is he ironizing the conditions of art’s production, exploring what might drive that process? Is he probing what ‘remains’ after art is produced and ‘rendered’?

In other words, Turner’s whaling pictures seem to me designed to raise the question of their own rendering - by the artist and by the viewer. They were produced by an artist whose works are self-sufficient bodies of thought and materialised discourse, performative expressions and experiences of thinking pursued through and with paint itself, resisting (in my hands no less) the flattening, circumscribing, deadening effect of words upon the ‘being-there’ of painting, the legislative violence of textual discourse over the force and phenomenology of sensate being and knowledge. We are, in other words, being drawn into a very material conversation by Turner.

For, as so often in his work, as in European ‘Romanticism’ in general, the artist’s address to his viewers is profoundly rhetorical and ethical. It asks, “What do you want from this? What are you doing here? What are you looking for… and why?” And in turn, “What will you make of this? What is your contribution to the painting and its capacity to produce meaning?” And ultimately, “What is your contribution to its subject matter, to the kind of scene you see?”

This is, I take it, what we mean when we say that Turner was a properly public artist: that his work hooks us and pulls us into a pointedly open-ended (often irresolvable) dissection of our own position and role in the world, as active agents within it capable of the ethical reflection that might serve as the best basis for something like democracy. The point of Turner’s work seems to me to be to draw us into thought, and precisely not to do the thinking for us.

And yet he was also looking to sell his whaling pictures, to a wealthy contemporary-art-loving patron, rendering up an artistic commodity designed to appeal but without selling himself into the bargain. In this case, that patron seems to have been Elhanan Bicknell, a man who had joined his family firm, manufacturing candles from the rendered body parts of whales.[3] The language that passed between Turner and Bicknell is telling. In January 1845, Turner invited Bicknell to his studio, “for I have a whale or two on the canvas”,[4] a bid which was successful when Bicknell bought the painting now in New York later that year, when he (Bicknell) wrote to an engraver, “Pray fasten your strongest hook into him [Turner] before he fairly takes water again or he may get so far and so deep down that even a harpoon will not reach him”.[5] The tensions between them came to the surface when Bicknell “found Water Colour” on the whaling picture he had bought, and returned it as an impure and adulterated oil painting, insisting that it be altered – to which Turner “looked Daggers”. Describing these events to his son, John James Ruskin claimed in turn that Turner’s use of watercolours on his oil paintings was evidence of his disregard for lasting artistic fame and his “stronger passion” instead for both “love of money” and “present effect & object”.[6]

Similarly, these pictures present art historians with one of the fundamental problems of the discipline: how to square a ‘materialist’ analysis of artworks (in which the particular conditions of their production represent the most immediate and compelling terms) with an ‘idealist’ analysis, in which their semantic load as visual images and expressions is allowed its full sway. For all the while, we are watching the ignoble fate of a whale – its apparently painful conversion into mere matter, crossing ontological paths with the paintings in which it is rendered. Such paradox seems to have characterised contemporary, sublimating attitudes to the effects of both commercial modernity and whaling: as Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) puts it, a hunted whale dies “a victim to the tyranny and selfishness, as well as a wonderful proof of the great power of the mind of man”.[7]

These problems of interpretation are repeatedly presented by Turner’s work, and they relate to its resistant quality as ‘tactical’. I use this term as it is described in Michel de Certeau’s introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life, an attempt to consider how the dominated members of modern consumer society “resist being reduced” to the passive victims of power. In particular, de Certeau asks

What “ways of operating” form the counterpart on the consumer’s side, of the mute processes that organise the establishment of socioeconomic order? These “ways of operating” constitute the innumerable practices by means of which users reappropriate the space organised by techniques of sociocultural production […,] the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of “discipline”. Pushed to these limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline.[8]

These questions about the practices of those whom commercial society renders as mere consumers, and who are told, in so many ways, that they should be passive, lead de Certeau to ask about the artfulness that consumers, in their consumption, might be understood to practice: “an art of combination which cannot be dissociated from an art of using”. These are the “tactics of consumption”, the “ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong”. The tactic “insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety[...]. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities”’.[9] As such, the tactic

takes the form […] of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is “seized”[…]. The Greeks called these “ways of operating” metis. But they go much further back, to the immemorial intelligence displayed in the tricks and imitations of plants and fishes. From the depths of the ocean to the streets of modern megalopolises, there is a continuity and permanence in these tactics.[10]

And a particular type of tactics is that of rhetoric: “ways of changing (seducing, persuading, making use of) the will of another (the audience)”.[11]

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Thomas Baston, engraved by Elisa Kirkhall, The Greenland Fishery (original c.1721), coloured engraving, 29.8 x 39.8 cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:1981.544.6

As an example of how such tactics might have been at stake for some artists, I want to draw in an earlier, resistant, example of the tactical deployment of whaling subject matter, Thomas Baston’s view of The Greenland Fishery (1721). (Fig. 3) Baston had been a Clerk of the Admiralty during the late 1690s, when his brother Samuel became a significant whistle blower over corruption within the Navy. Soon afterwards, Thomas Baston began producing remarkably classicising drawings of Royal Navy vessels complete with grandiloquent dedications to royalty and multiple Admiralty Commissioners, and would continue to do so over the next decade and more as his brother pressed repeatedly in print for virtuous wartime government, demands for which he was imprisoned and ultimately identified as the king’s potential assassin. Given his beautifully calligraphed petitions to the Crown for financial assistance, his repeated involvement in extraordinarily ambitious commercial print projects (such as the whaling scene, one of “Twenty-two prints of several of the capital ships of his Majesties Royal Navy” published around 1721), and his long spell in a debtor’s prison during the 1710s, it would seem that Baston lost his Admiralty post by association, and that he was desperate to salvage his reputation and his livelihood as a consequence.[12]

Like his drawings, each of these prints is lavishly dedicated to a member of the military or commercial Establishment. The Greenland Fishery engraving is no exception, dedicated to Sir John Eyles, who was a major investor in the transatlantic slave trade during this period. Eyles had come into this business via his father, one of the original subscribers to the Royal Africa Company and subsequently an agent dealing directly in Barbados sugar and slaves. The profits from these ventures had enabled Eyles’s father to acquire an estate in Wiltshire and qualify for the knighthood which was passed onto his son, Baston’s dedicatee, a “sub-governor” of the South Sea Company, which (like the Royal Africa Company) had been established to invest in and profit from the transatlantic slave trade.

Baston’s Greenland Fishery print therefore dedicates a view of one type of slaughter, to a man whose substantial inheritance and continued fortune involved another type of slaughter, in an example of the same kind of ‘tactic’ – de Certeau’s “manipulation of events in order to turn them into [ppportunities”’ for changing the will of others – at stake in Turner’s whaling pictures. His ends were different, even as his means were somewhat the same, since Turner’s ‘tactic’ seems to have been to invoke the different meanings of ‘rendering’ – rendering as depiction, as offering, as translation or interpretation, and as the transportation and transformation of bodies – simultaneously within these four pictures. And if they were aimed at Bicknell, all four were also exhibited before a public, artistic attempts to highlight and (significantly) not to ameliorate or resolve the strained, ‘deterioriating’ quality of social, aesthetic and subject-to-subject experiences within capitalist modernity.[13]


  1. See Philip Armstrong, ‘Rendering the Whale’, in What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 99-133.

  2. ‘Royal Academy’, The Times, 6 May 1845, 6.

  3. See Mark Howard, ‘Elhanan Bicknell, oil merchant and shipowner’,, Date of access: 20 October 2017.

  4. J.M.W. Turner to Elhanan Bicknell, letter, 31 January 1845, in John Gage, ed., Collected Correspondence of JMW Turner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 205.

  5. Elhanan Bicknell to John Pye, letter, 23 June 1845, quoted in Peter Bicknell and Helen Guiterman, ‘The Turner Collector: Elhanan Bicknell’, Turner Studies, 1 (1987), 38.

  6. John James Ruskin to John Ruskin, letter, 19 September 1846, quoted in Katherine Baetjer, British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575-1875 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009), 233-34.

  7. Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale: To Which is Added A Sketch of A South-Sea Whaling Voyage, In Which the Author Was Personally Engaged (London: John van Voorst, 1839), 167.

  8. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall (1980; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), xiv.

  9. de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, xix.

  10. de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, xix-xx.

  11. de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, xx.

  12. See MS petition of Thomas Baston, in Treasury Papers (Public Record Office, London: T1/78, no. 6), and his adverts in The Daily Courant, 25 September 1703 and The London Gazette, 6 January 1704. On Samuel Baston’s anti-corruption campaign, see Mark Knights, ‘Parliament, Print and Corruption in Later Stuart Britain’, Parliamentary History, 26.1 (March 2008), pp.49-61.

  13. de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, xxiv.