Whalers in the Arctic - Attributed to Robert Willoughby (c.1840)
oil on canvas, 83 x 111.5 cm
KINCM:2007.2253, Hull Maritime Museum

Like a print after a painting that generates a reverse image, Willoughby’s Whalers in the Arctic borrows the title of another, undated image by the painter, but reverses the structure, with the central ship remaining parallel to the picture plane, in port view, but positioned more centrally, whilst the contrasting, lost stern view of the same ship here appears on the right, rather than the left hand side. If the first picture suggests a reader’s movement from left to right and from the dynamism of the lost stern view to the stability of the moored ship, in this version Willougby takes the reader’s eye from the stable anchored ship to a second ship oriented towardsthe horizon and, maybe, home, but with no sails up to catch the wind, suggesting that it is also moored against the ice floe. Willoughby also accessorises his ships differently, with a blue flag with a red central circle, on the ship in the centre, replacing red flags with a white central circle on both ships in the earlier image. In addition, there’s less life in the foreground, with no polar bear on the repoussoir ice floe on the right,  and no whales to be seen in the water. Perhaps this image represents a later, quieter, more peaceful, but less profitable Arctic, where there was more waiting around, fewer mammals left for the hunting, and the increasing need to winter over. There’s certainly less blue in the sky, and less green in the water, suggesting a darker overall environment. On the other side of the world, in 1840, the Treaty of Waitanga would be signed that summer, formally making New Zealand a British colony. David Livingstone would also leave for Africa that winter. The Arctic was becoming less central to in the British world.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum