Harpooned Sperm Whale with Head Upturned and Overturning a Whale Boat Alongside - Anon (American School) (c.1880)
oil on canvas, 43.5 x 83 cm
KINCM:2007.2274, Hull Maritime Museum

Turner was evidently not the only nineteenth-century marine artist who went to Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1835, 1839)  for inspiration. This depiction of a harpooned sperm whale evidently derives from the illustration introducing chapter 12 of the Natural History on page 154, which similarly shows an upturned whale, in left profile view, with a boat approaching in readiness for the harpooner to strike the whale’s body with a lance. As in Beale, a second boat, immediately behind the whale has been upturned by the turbulence of its death throws. The painter, however, effectively makes the image his own in a number of ways. He adds colour to Beale’s monochrome engraving, making a Binks-like tonal harmony of the grey blues of the sea, whale, clouds, and ship, punctuated with shocking spurts of blood red. Theartist also adds a whale ship in port view in the background, framed against helpfully white clouds, providing greater depth of field to to the image by providing this cloudscape above the horizon line as well as depth to the ocean, by not cropping his image with the waves immediately surrounding the whale. Like Turner, in the Wimereux and Ambleteuse sketchbook (1845), the artist also  has fun with his clouds, suggesting a parallel between the whale’s tail and the fluke-like appearance of the central cloud bank. The painter, like Turner, may have been remembering Polonius’ famous comparison, in Act 3 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1609) of clouds and the bodies of whales. 1880, the year in which the painting was probably completed, represented a key moment in the global transport of animal products, with the first shipment of frozen mutton arriving in London from Australia on February 2.

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Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum