Whalers in the Arctic - Robert Willoughby (date unknown)
oil on canvas, 79.5 x 110.5 cm

Willoughby’s Whalers in the Arctic depicts three ships, and a number of whaleboats, and does not mention specific ships in its titles, so it is less likely a commissioned ship’s portrait, and more an attempt to capture the general character of Arctic whaling. Nevertheless, there is a close relationship between the overall structure of the picture and Willoughby’s Aurora and Elizabeth ship’s portraits. This was evidently a formula which worked for patrons, with variations in colour and accessory details being enough to differentiate the pictures for patrons. The three masted ship on the right, in portside profile view, is anchored, and depicted parallel to the horizon and picture plane, to emphasise its stability. The ship on the left, by contrast, is in a more dynamic, three quarter stern view; its energy emphasised by the wind billowing in its sails, flag, and banner, pushing it towards the horizon. Like Fletcher, Willoughby was again less interested than Turner, in ensuring the consistent patterning of wind, given the apparently different barometric conditions affecting the ship on the left and right. The ships each have a black hull with a central red/brown stripe, whose colour harmonises with the ship’s flags, whilst the sails harmonise with the grey and white clouds above. Cannons can be found along the gunwhale, suggesting these are repurposed naval vessels, perhaps suggesting a date after 1815. Such gunwhales would have been useful deterrents against French attack during the Napoleonic Wars. Casement windows at the stern of the ship on the right suggest the possibility of seeing inside the ship,  or that the viewer’s gaze might be met there by the captain’s. Alternatively, viewers, looking through the glazed surface of the picture, might have identified with the captain looking back through the glazed surface of the window. Willoughby also establishes a relationship between the forms of the clouds and the ice floes, suggesting how difficult it was to provide profile contours of the Arctic shore as the seasons and weather changed, causing the ice, like the clouds, to augment and diminish, to solidify into apparently stable forms, and to melt or precipitate back into water.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum