Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves - J.M.W. Turner (c.1846)
oil on canvas, 89.9. x 120 cm
Tate, London. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856 (N000546)

Turner’s whaling quartet concludes on a pessimistic note. The left hand side of the canvas depicts the boiling down of the whale’s blubber to retrieve the valuable oil that lubricated machinery and lit early-Victorian cities. Opposite the fiery try-works, recalling a number of Turner paintings celebrating dramatic industrial processes, a second ship is trapped in the ice, the fate of an increasingly large number of Hull whalers, sailing north to capture one of the few remaining whales. Scholars disagree over what the whalers on the right are doing. Some see the men cutting into the body of another whale. Others, following Turner’s title, think the men are cutting their boat from the ice. The confusion derives from Turner’s filthy canvas, in which the air, water, and ice are all polluted with smoke and oil; a cautionary tale that is all too familiar.

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