'Aurora' - Robert Willoughby (c.1811-1821)
oil on canvas, 70 x 101 cm
KINCM:2007.1535, Hull Maritime Museum

The whale ship Aurora was built in Selby in 1782, and first registered in Hull as a whaler in 1811, before being lost in the Davis Strait in 1821. The image is almost certainly a ship’s portrait commissioned for the owner or captain of the Aurora, seen in three views; stationary in the mid-ground, and sailing towards the horizon on the centre left and far right. Deriving its name from the Aurora Borealis, Willoughby’s picture further reminds us that no Hull painter depicted the Northern Lights, even though descriptions of the phenomena were a staple of nineteenth-century accounts of whaling and Arctic exploration, and even though some scenes of trapped whale ships take place at night or during the dark days of the long Arctic winter. Instead, Willoughby, like his Hull School peers, focused on the whaling activities that took place during the day, with flensing occurring off the port side of the central vessel, and a number of whale boats arranged in a line collectively dragging the massive form of a deceased whale back towards the central ship, in readiness for a second flensing to begin. He had used a similar trope in the earlier Gilder in the Arctic. Willoughby ensures an overall harmony for the scene, and British possession of the Arctic sea, land, and sky, by the way he tints similarly blue the flag on the central ship, the sails on the ship back right, the ice floe on the bottom right, and the clouds on the right side of the picture.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum