Whalers 'Isabella' and 'Comet' in the Arctic - Unknown Artist (c.1850)
oil on canvas, 69 x 82 cm
KINCM:2007.2246, Hull Maritime Museum

The Comet, as we know from its earlier depiction with the Swan, was built in Rotherhithe in 1791, and first registered in Hull in 1803, before being lost in 1843. Whilst predominantly an Arctic vessel, the ship sailed in the Southern Fishery between 1812 and 1815. Like Turner’s Whalers, then, the canvas suggests the global character of Victorian whaling. There were two whalers called Isabella in the period: the first sailed in the 1786-7 season, whilst the vessel depicted here was built and registered in Hull in 1813, and lost in the Davis Strait in May 1835, having earlier rescued Arctic explorer John Ross from Lancaster Sound.  These facts suggest that the scene in question takes place at some point in the twenty years after 1815.  The artist depicts the two vessels in opposing lost bow views, and in full sail, with Union Jacks at the rear. A third whaler is sailing into the bay on the right. Two whale boats are immediately between the left ship and the shore, with a further pair on the right hand side, with red flags raised to signal the successful catch of a dying whale, already being attacked by gulls, toward the bottom right hand corner, flukes raised and spouting blood. This Arctic territory is being marked by the blood red of the British empire. With three ships sailing within one bay, and only one whale apparent, the picture also suggests the increasingly competitive terrain and slim pickings of the Arctic coastal waters. Centre stage is a polar bear devouring a seal, emphasising that the slaughter of mammals is a natural occurrence. In a perhaps unique appearance in Hull School paintings, it is, perhaps, possible that, between the two main ships the artist depicts a winter Inuit settlement. Whalers increasingly encountered Inuit in the period, as they ventured further north and were forced to winter over. In addition, the Inuit became more keen trading partners, in search of medicines, metal goods, and, when times were hard, foodstuffs, in exchange for country foods, in times of plenty, as well as craft items, and warm clothes.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum