Whaler 'Volunteer' off Whitby - R. Ferriby (1841)
47.5 x 77.5 cm, oil on canvas

The Volunteer was built in Whitby in 1756, and first registered in Hull in 1829, before being lost 14 years later, trading. The canvas depicts the three-masted whaler in a portside profile view, in full sail with a blue name pennant on its main mast. Unlike the majority of Hull School images of whalers from the period, the vessel is not located in the Arctic, but sailing away from its home port of Whitby, the home town of the period’s greatest whalers, William Scoresby, senior and junior, as well as the birthplace of Captain James Cook. In the background of the picture is local landmark, Whitby Abbey, at the top of the cliffs, with the harbour, lighthouse, built in 1831, and pier, in the mid-ground. Indeed, lighthouses were very much in the news in 1841, the year the canvas was completed, as  the proprietors of the Skerries Lighthouse, off Anglesey, the last privately owned light in the British isles, was sold to Trinity House. 1841 also witnessed James Clark Maxwell’s discovery of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the volcano that would lend its name to the whaleship in Turner’s third Whaler. Joining the Volunteer are a fishing smack, the Nicholas, sailing out to the left of the Volunteer, with red name pennant, sails up, and crew on board. A smaller sailing boat with passengers at the stern is in the foreground close to a round black buoy. The canvas thus juxtaposes two kinds of fishing, the local and Arctic whale fisheries. That the crews of whalers were volunteers, rather than press-ganged, was central to the mythology of the whaling trade, as readers learn from Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1863 Whitby-whaling novel, Sylvia’s Lovers, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, when naval vessels frequently sought to press-gang returning whalers.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum