Out of Their Element

Ben Westwood

University of Oxford

There was a Young Lady of Wales,
Who caught a large fish without scales;
When she lifted her hook
She exclaimed, ‘Only look!’
That ecstatic Young Lady of Wales.[1]

Edward Lear’s punning limerick seems like a good place to start. Partly, of course, because it’s delightful. But mostly because it distils some of the key motifs to which I discuss in this paper.

To begin with, it’s a joke about taxonomy: a large fish without scales is likely, as the unvoiced but loudly heard rhyme implies, not a fish at all, but a whale. The whale/fish (the pun insists on having it both ways at once) is also half in, and half out of the water, mimicking its double-status in the poem as mammal and fish.

The illustration that accompanies the limerick also dislocates the Young Lady herself from her natural habitat. Flattened out and letter-like, like most of Lear’s illustrations, this image floats in two-dimensional space on the page, only lightly tethered to the words it accompanies. She is also, lest we forget, ‘ecstatic’, with the etymological resonances here also putting her beside herself. Both limerick and picture, in other words, are tending towards a sense of out-of-placeness.

This is what I’m interested in—how the pictures of the Hull School seem to provide a visual language and an aesthetic logic for thinking about the relations between humans (and other animals) in these works. How, for example, neither whalers nor whales are quite at home in these pictures, the former sometimes stranded on ice floes, the latter half-submerged as they’re caught.

This visual language is a correlative, I think, to a strand of thought—or rather a strand of language, a verbal tic—circulating at the same time: the idea of an element, and of the elements. What I’ll describe might be little more than a semantic coincidence, but I think not.

The word ‘element’ circulated with an increasing frequency during the years of the Hull School: Google Ngram suggests that the increase in the use of the word in English-language publications was about threefold between 1800 and 1850. It appears with surprising frequency in relation to whales and whaling, in more or less meaningful combinations. To take a statistical view, again, a search of British Periodicals for articles that contain both the words ‘whale’ and ‘element’ in those same fifty years blows out nearly three thousand results. Even just on an aesthetic level, the Arctic setting of these paintings situates the scenes in environments which are both uniquely exposed to the elements, and composed of two or more states of one of the four elements: water, ice, and snow.

Clearly, something stimulated the early-nineteenth-century imagination when it considered whales as creatures of both water and air; inhabitants of the sea who were nonetheless much more closely related to humans than fish; mammals who had come to reside in a different element to others, a taxonomic anomaly. As an anonymous contributor to Fraser’s Magazine of October 10 1835 put it, “a class of animated creatures distinct from both fishes and land animals, though partaking of the character of both”, for whom water is “their exclusive […] element”.

My contention is that the paintings of the Hull School offer a way of seeing the multivalent ideological and aesthetic resonances of this association simultaneously. They draw attention to the conceptual elasticity of the word—and the seemingly unrecognised pungency of its association with whaling. It’s stating the obvious, I know, but the fact that these are pictures makes mutually exclusive senses available for thought at the same time.

Before I continue, though, the briefest note on method. I want to ask: What are the lines of connection—imaginative, material, conceptual, visual, incidental—which link humans and other animals in texts and images? In answering this, I hope to develop ways of reading which look to construct, or recover, from within a text or image, and according to the work’s own internal logic, lines of relation and connection between humans and other animals. This constructivist approach is politically-, as well as aesthetically-motivated; it’s an attempt at reparative reading, at making these works readable in the face of historical violence.

The OED gives us two contradictory senses of ‘element’, as an all-encompassing medium, and a constituent part of a larger machine, organism, or institution. But the word seems to have two more specific resonances in the early nineteenth century, connected to natural theology and Romanticism.

In his Natural History of the Ordinary Cetacea or Whales (1861), published as part of the popular Naturalist’s Library series, Robert Hamilton praised the “wonderful adaptations by which an animal of such a structure and habit of body is fitted to become the inhabitant of a different element”.[2] He’s prompted to do so by the “singular position” of whales in the natural world; they move like fish, and live in the water, but respire and procreate like mammals.

(This anomaly, like the discovery of the duck-billed platypus, raised questions of more than just taxonomic import. In 1834, for instance, Henry Dewhurst suggested that the “natural history of the whale is an object well worthy the utmost attention of the zoologist, theologian, and philosopher”.[3] He may well be right).

The language and ideas Hamilton uses here assert the defining tenets of Natural Theology, as William Paley’s pre-eminent work of that name lays out. Paley:

The bodies of animals hold, in their constitution and properties, a close and important relation to natures altogether external to their own; to inanimate substances, and to the specific qualities of these, e.g. they hold a strict relation to the elements by which they are surrounded.[4]

Natural Theology uses the unapproachable complexity and relational dependency of the natural world as an argument for intelligent design. Such is the intricacy and mastery of fit between the individual parts of the world (at the levels of anatomy and ecology), argues Paley, that it’s inconceivable that it could have emerged on its own, without contrivance.

But as well as restating Paley’s definitive and widely-read formulation of Natural Theological orthodoxy, Hamilton also echoes his choice of words. In this discourse, ‘element’ signifies something like an environment and the individual constituents of that environment. The “strict relation” noted by Paley—how each organism is “fitted” to its environment—is a function of both its suitability to a medium (water or air), and its symbiotic interactions with the other things cohabiting within that medium. The phrase “elements by which they are surrounded” speaks at once to an immersion, and to a relational web of individuals.

The mythopoeic resonance of the word was evidently appealing not only to Paley and Natural Theologists, but also to poets of the Romantic period. Mary Ann Browne, for instance, writes ‘The Song of the Elements’ in 1832, as an alternating dialogue and chorus, realising in them a version of Coleridge’s ‘unity in multëity’:

We four dwell all apart, yet, still

We are bound by a viewless chain.[5]

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Robert Hamilton, The Natural History of the Ordinary Cetacea or Whales, with Memoir of Lacépède (1837; London: No publisher given, 1861). Photograph: Benjamin Westwood, author’s own collection

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Richard Dodd Widdas, Diana Gripped in the Ice (1867), oil on canvas, 48 x 65.5 cm, KINCM:2007.1337, Hull Maritime Museum

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Thomas Binks, Hull Whalers in the Arctic (1822), oil on oak panel, 48 x 63.5 cm, KINCM:2005.4751, Hull Maritime Museum

Figure 4

Fig. 4: Thomas Binks, The ‘Jane, ‘Viewforth’ and ‘Middleton’ Fast in Ice (1836), oil on canvas, 75 x 100 cm, KINCM:2007.1327, Hull Maritime Museum, Hull

Figure 5

Fig. 5: Unknown Artist, The Hull Whalers Swan and Comet in the Arctic Regions (c.1815), oil on canvas, 51 x 61.5 cm, KINCM:2007.1438, Hull Maritime Museum

Figure 6

Fig. 6: Robert Willoughby, Munificence and other Whalers in the Arctic (c.1802-08), oil on canvas, 54.2 x 87.5 cm, KINCM:2007.1312, Hull Maritime Museum

Figure 7

Fig. 7: John Ward, William Lee in the Arctic, oil on canvas, 19th century, 68 x 98.5 cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1439

And, indeed, this is characteristic of a parallel Romantic sense of ‘element’, which signals something like an organic wholeness. Browne’s ‘Song’ owes a debt, of course, to the songs of the Spirit of the Earth, and the other rebellious elements, in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820). An ‘element’ is, in this sense, the unifying and universal tissue of existence. Alfred Lord Tennyson draws on this legacy when he ends In Memoriam (1850) with

One God, one law, one element,

And one far off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.[6]

At the same time, though, late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century life sciences began to re-inflect the word with a concomitant and closely-related sense of elements as the building blocks of organic life and scientific knowledge. As in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), when Victor recounts how

The untaught peasant beheld the elements around him and was acquainted with their practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. He might dissect, anatomize, and give names; but, not to speak of a final cause, causes in their secondary and tertiary grades were utterly unknown to him. I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repined.[7]

In the Hull School paintings, we can, I think, both see a Romantic sensibility of the Sublime (the Arctic in Frankenstein and Jane Eyre (1847); Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818)), and hear the traces of the natural historical/Natural Theological discourse of whaling books. They are influenced by both.

For example, William Scoresby’s popular accounts of Arctic whaling include whole chapters devoted to Arctic zoology, and the biology and natural history of the whale. We could note further Hamilton’s request in his Natural History that whalers use the book to divert themselves, and contribute to the pool of cetacean zoology.

We indulge the hope, that our little Volume may become a vade mecum to many a mariner and fisherman, and that beguiling over I the tedium of a sea voyage, he may thereby be excited to improve some of those opportunities which frequently make themselves present to him […,] that by making pertinent and judicious observations, he may thus add to the stock of our interesting and important information.[8]

And also, more obliquely, we could pose an analogy between natural history illustrations, which pictorially dismember cetacean bodies, and the practices of the whaling industry. (Fig. 1).

My focus on elements has taken us a little distance from the pictures, but I’m hoping what it might allow us to do now is get a new perspective on the kinds of aesthetic relation which they compose. For the double vision of the word encourages us to see both the whole and the part, the medium and the bodies within it.

Like the sea-bound mammals they pursued, whalers and their crew were out of their element: afloat and in frequent peril. They were also at the mercy of the elements. The threat of being swallowed up by the ice, incorporated into the elemental forces of the seascape loomed large, and this conflict allegorises the familiar antagonism between man and the natural world. The following, from The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Erebus & Terror, is exemplary.

On the 20th February a gale came on, which, though in open water, was sufficiently trying; the wind was very high, and the spray which beat over the ships became frozen ere it reached the deck, forming every object into a mass of ice; the coils of rope were covered by an icy incrustation several inches thick, and most of the running-gear about the bowsprits was carried away by the weight of ice formed on it.[9]

We can see this in the paintings, most famously Richard Dodd Widdas’s Diana Gripped in the Ice (Fig. 2), but also in Thomas Binks’s Hull Whalers in the Arctic (Fig. 3), Binks’s The ‘Jane’, ‘Viewforth’, and ‘Middleton’ Fast in Ice (Fig. 4), and the anonymous The Hull Whalers Swan and Comet in the Arctic Regions (Fig. 5).

And so there is, perhaps, a very attenuated sympathetic correspondence between the whalers and the whales; a curious compound manifestation of the Romantic and Natural Theological senses of elemental relatedness. The whales are caught in the freeze-frame of the picture, and their not-quite-amphibian status is represented by the exposed flukes and backs now vulnerable to their hunters. An anonymous reviewer of Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1835), approvingly quoted Beale’s description of how the whale “throws himself, in his agony, completely out of his element”.[10] The human animals themselves are far from home, floating precariously in hunting boats or on ice floes.

Let’s now turn to two particular paintings: Willoughby’s Munificence and other Whalers in the Arctic (c.1802-8) (Fig. 6); and John Ward’s ‘William Lee’ in the Arctic (c.1831-2) (Fig. 7).

Perhaps the most obvious difference is in their depiction of perspective and depth of field. While Ward employs shadow, foreground, and vanishing points to create an impression of horizontal depth, mapping the William Lee’s ‘successful’ journey into and back out of the whaling ground in the middle distance, Willoughby’s work offers a stranger take. Its striking flatness, in which a very dark foreground in the bottom left corner fails to create any sense of three-dimensionality, or off-set the very fine gradations between its narrow yellow-green-blue colour palette, curiously renders a kind of elemental continuity to the composition. Everything is happening on one common plane, generating a hazy sense of pictorial egalité which pulls awkwardly, if ineffectually, against the violent hierarchical relationship depicted by the scene.

The continuity of the picture plane is also emphasised in the Willoughby by the silhouettes of the whalers themselves. Set in perfect profile, the artist replicates the shapes of human bodies across the boats, in a kind of cookie-cutter approach. This contradicts the detailed mimetic representation of the ships, and transforms the individuals into pictorial building blocks. They therefore also highlight their contiguity on the canvas, rather than generate impressions of three-dimensional spatial distance. It is a tellingly de-individualising aesthetic, in celebration of an industry that always had to incorporate the loss of ‘hands’, as well as whales, into its balance sheets.

We might also note the difference in the relative scale of whales and whalers in the two pictures. The Ward pictures one fluke in the middle ground that is almost the same length as the boat pursuing it, while of the captured cetacean in the foreground only a tellingly large portion is glimpsed above the water. In Willoughby’s work, though, whale, whaler, and whaling boat are pretty much the same size. If we couldn’t see the jet of water from mammalian blowholes, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Munificence had gone all the way to the Arctic in search of some particularly sizeable tuna.

Despite the fairly obvious difference in skill in the depiction of depth, perspective, shade, motion, and drama, Willoughby’s odd little flatfish seems, to me, to offer more in terms of aesthetic interest. In binding its action to the picture plane, and in the resemblances between its constituent figures, it represents both senses of ‘element’; as medium and part.

Neither the whales nor the hunters feel at home in these images, though the flatness of the picture plane can’t help but equalise the individual elements of the composition. Its replication of whaler silhouettes, the medieval bestiary-like flukes and humps, the way the ice and snow extends up the image as much as receding into the distance, creates a much stranger encounter than with the Ward. It’s to do with the starkness, I suppose, of the composition, and with the bungling expanses of dead space between the figures. These generate a much clearer sense of out-of-placeness, which accords much more readily with that repeated sense of both whale and whalers being, as I’ve emphasised, in a strange and foreign element.

But, even with this attenuated drama of likeness and imaginative sympathy, a second sense of ‘element’—not an all-encompassing medium, but a component part of a complex whole—discovers humanity’s ‘victory’ on a larger scale. For the scenes metonymically depict an entire industry; the products of which go on to become component parts of the industrial and commercial project of imperial Britain. Elements are not only a neutral medium of cohabitation. They bite (with frost), and they are what’s produced by the decomposition of organisms into their constituent parts. It’s tempting to dwell on the elements of composition, and on how the word holds the promise of a unity in multëity. But these paintings return us abruptly to the reality of a capitalist economy that is incompatible with a Romantic aesthetic; in which the latter aspires towards the monism I’ve just outlined, and the former calculates in terms of the “material elements and shapes that make the product”, in Karl Marx’s words.

The ambiguity and associative resonance of this complex word offers itself as a tenuous and ropey bridge. One which manages, I think, to cathect a desire to repair or re-establish a more equable relation between humans and whales, and an awareness of the systemic violence the pictures emblematise.

Writing this has really helped me clarify that, as a vegan and a reader (my pronouns, I think), my practices of reading and looking are geared towards making human-on-animal violence less debilitating, without doing violence to the work in question. I believe that a positive shift in our relations with other animals is possible through a shift in our thinking. And that that change involves all the resources of human thought; aesthetic, or poetic thinking, as much as philosophical argument, or cultural critique.


  1. Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, ed. Vivien Noakes (London: Penguin, 2001), 101.

  2. Robert Hamilton, The Natural History of the Ordinary Cetacea or Whales, with Memoir of Lacépède (1837; London: No publisher given, 1861), 37.

  3. Henry Dewhurst, The Natural History of the Order Cetacea and the Oceanic Inhabitants of the Arctic Regions: Illustrated with Numerous Lithographic and Wood Engravings (London: Dewhurst, 1834), 13.

  4. William Paley, Natural Theology (1802; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 211.

  5. Mary Ann Browne, ‘The Song of the Elements’, in Andrew Ashfield, ed., Romantic Women Poets 1788-1848 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), II: 167.

  6. Tennyson: A Selected Edition, ed. Christopher Ricks (Abingdon, 2007 [1969]), p. 484.

  7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle (1818; London: Penguin, 2003 [1818]), 41.

  8. Hamilton, Natural History, 42.

  9. John Richardson and John Edward Gray, eds. The Zoology of The Voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus and Terror (London: no publisher given, 1844-45), viii.

  10. Anon., review of Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, The Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1839), 289.