jmw Turner self portrait, Turner portrait,  Madonna portrait, Shipwreck, JMW Portrait, shipwrec,  madonna, turner slavers...      J.M.W. Turner the source
Portrait of a Hero           

 jmw turner

Rescuing Turner: A New Age of Art Discovery
              r. malcolm setters / graham setters jmw

                          "Great wooden vessel bears roughest of seas,
                          Tossed by the beckoning deep;
                          While souls near-free from mortal distress,
                          Still fight till their last precious breath.

                          Lost in their toil, despair and exhaustion,
                          Sheer fright their last dieing grip;
                          Anon an accomplice observer apart,
                          Sits motionless out-but-within.  

Has this grand premonition, the epic drama of Shipwreck, the Rescue come to fruition two centuries after it was first painted? Might that be the esoteric Turner’s own portrait stabilizing the stern of the Rescue boat? If yes—why is he there? jmw

Clearly, he is the immediate focus on which the scene is built; sitting there in his red waistcoat with cravat loosely piled about his neck. At first, the authority and calm demeanor of the figure might presuppose a British military officer, observing from his make shift command post. There he sits, clad in his red tunic, impotent, unable to command the upcoming events—those catastrophic events governed by the forces of nature. As we look closer at the collar and lapel, they are not those of a soldier at all, and where are his obligatory hat, and cape? Apparently, the red is only to capture our attention, and so it does. But this is somebody different and apart, somebody that observes us straight on – a fallacious participant “wearing an elegant cravat knotted in the fashion of the dandies of his day.”[i] Turner was one artist in particular that was seldom seen without his cravat; even as a young man in his early twenties it seemed part of his identity. “Clara, daughter of his watercolourist friend W.F. Wells, wrote of him: ‘when the servant opened the door the uproar was so great that I asked the servant what was the matter.’ ‘Oh, it’s only the young ladies (my sisters) playing with the young gentleman (Turner), Ma’am,’ came the answer. When I went to the sitting room, he was sitting on the ground, and the children were winding his ridiculously long cravat round his neck[ii] William Vaughan’s prophetic statement may add to the clues of whom our eyes meet in the stern of the boat: “Turner entered fully into the events themselves. He recorded what he had witnessed, not so much by description as by the creation of the pictorial equivalent.”[iii] 

Besides the “full white handkerchief round his neck” the red velvet waistcoat was also part of the artist’s often observed uniform. When Linnel did Turner’s portrait from memory, he was wearing a “red velvet waist coat, dandy coat with velvet collar.” Although private and often reclusive, it sounds as if this somewhat coarse aesthete set himself up as a visual target throughout his life. His colleagues describe seeing him, even in late life, when he “shone out at Academy meetings in a red velvet waistcoat.”[iv]
         The quiet expressionless face is carefully composed and familiar, largely like a portrait would be; but why does he and those around him have the same lack of facial expression? Possibly this is due to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was one of Turner’s most influential mentors at the time. [1] He insisted: “If you mean to preserve the most perfect beauty in its most perfect state, you can not express the passions, all of which produce distortion and deformity, more or less, in the most beautiful faces.”[v]

When it comes to comparing the man in red with the body gestures of those around him, any integration with the scene, as a whole, is lost. His activity level is certainly in astonishing contrast to those around him: those other tormented tangled bodies, fighting for survival, or fighting to save others. The ones not fighting are those near death from exhaustion, or passed out from fear.

If it is accepted that Turner himself is posing, why does he appear frontally? Many questions seem to resolve themselves after looking at his self-portrait from 1798. It might be slightly earlier in date, but compensating for the age difference, both the the facial characteristics and personal deportment are similar.

               This Self-portrait was painted two years before
                the portrait in the 'rescue boat' - Tate Gallery
               (the one in the rescue boat is 1.5 inches high)

In the literature
about Turner it has been assumed that he was not overly fond of his own profile. When he recorded his features for posterity: the one, or two, or if we include the stoic face in the Rescue boat; three times, they all appear in the same frontal pose, a pose that is seldom taken by other artists. Rothenstein and Butlin verify a significant point here: “In his early subject-pictures he turned in accord with contemporary taste, to history and mythology, but partly because of his training, partly because of an inability, perhaps psychological, to depict the human figure except in a more summary and detached way, his medium was the figure in landscape…Indeed the only direct large-scale portrayal of a human being that could be looked at without embarrassment, is the wonderfully sensitive and searching early Self-Portrait, which may itself give a significant clue to his personality, suggesting that the only human being with whom Turner could bear to identify himself fully was his own self.” [vi] Standing in front of Shipwreck, the Rescue, Martin Butlin could only nod in agreement when asked if he thought the subject in red serge was the artist of the painting at hand. (Am Aug 21)

 In the context of such works as Shipwreck, and Shipwreck, the Rescue it is interesting what Jack Lindsay quotes about Turner’s figure and portrait painting. This may be a poignant help in understanding our ‘hero’ in the boat a little better:

      “He (Turner) is resting the secrets of fury and tumult, of suffering and inner discord, from the universe; and the tempestuous clouds and waters are like his own spirit, his mother, and the disturbed society that surrounds him with war, violence, division, and worsening crisis.
      "His inability to draw people stems from this complex of emotions. Only once he succeeded in staring someone in the face and plainly putting down what he saw. The face was his own, and the result was the early self-portrait out of which he insistently stares – a work produced in a desperate struggle to maintain self-respect through the dark yet exciting years, when his mother raved and he went on mastering his art. His weakness in depicting faces did not come from any inability to draw. When he was not thinking of figures as persons he could often draw them effectively enough; he could master ships and buildings, mountains and seas, trees and rocks and streams, he could master men at work, as long as they were part of the scene of action and did not intrude as persons. (Mayall the photographer, who knew him near the end, mentioned that in speaking Turner kept his eyes on the ground and did not look his companion in the face)."[vii] 

Compared with the portrait, which appears more highly finished and static, the energy Turner imparts to the rest of the picture is more characteristic of his work. Yes, Turner was not one for trite portraiture but was at all times complex in his intentions. This is explained by Eric Shanes using the concept of his “inverted Archetype… The seeming vacancies and doll-like features of Turner’s figures were not supplied by any human or painterly deficiency on his part, but by a conscious and wholly moralistic desire to create a direct metaphor for something essential to human nature, namely our hubris and its tragic-comic implications.”[x]       


This detail of Turner's famous Shipwreck shows the archetypal figures similar to those found in Shipwreck the Rescue, although here one sees a considerable amount more impasto. Turner would embellish his exhibition pieces in this way starting well before 1805 (the year Shipwreck was exhibited in his own gallery).

     His figures surely evolved over the decades, but in all cases they are distinctively Turner. Although this is more clearly seen when his people are massed together, as in the ‘rescue boats’, the physiognomy is unmistakable. Instantly recognizable, his people are as distinctively Turner a

s Pieter Brueghel’s are distinctively Brueghel. Even Martin Butlin could not deny the similarity of the figures in Shipwreck, the Rescue as compared to those in the Shipwreck. Martin wrote in his report that these similarities included “the general depiction of such features as figures in the boat; there is even a Madonna group as in The Shipwreck.” More completely, Jack Lindsay’s prose provokes similar accord: “The Shipwreck, which has a powerful effect of moving space and wild water. A strong diagonal, given a series of inner tensions by the lines of masts, stays, spars and waves, leads down into a central vortex, a kind of exploding lozenge full of local swirls and surges. The desperate efforts of the human figures to master the situation provide a counter-force, which we feel may well triumph. The tragic moment is given its full depth of emotion by its reflection in a woman’s Madonna-face.”[xi]

With this description of a fully developed lozenge and vortex, can there be any doubt which painting was the more mature work. Shipwreck, the Rescue, with its earlier development of opposing diagonals would certainly suggest it to be the formative model. Lindsay’s description of the Madonna-face is especially brilliant and relates to both pictures equally. jmw
   In this detail of Shipwreck, the Rescue, the Madonna and child imagery is twice repeated  
The tragic moment is given its full depth of emotion  in the face of the Madonna-figure.” 

The comparison with a Christian Madonna surely goes beyond a trite reference. It is not merely a mother-child bond that we are given to observe, but something much more profound. Does Turner not confront us with a Christian allegory; the contrapposta positioning of the one woman’s head and upper torso is surely taken from a medieval or early Renaissance archetype. One example is the Avignon Pietà by E. Quarton. The Louvre, Paris

What about that lone Black Man
in the rescue boat (below)? He is dressed similarly to the other sailors and is teamed up with two others in an epic attempt to save those clinging to a spar. In 1802 this man would have been a slave not an equal as portrayed here, and certainly not a hero. At the best of times Turner tended to portray his staffage as “doltish or ‘low’ mankind.” “Man, in Turner’s works, is rarely given the opportunity to be heroic.”[ xii] Why here? Turner was unmistakably an abolitionist; could this have something to do with his complimentary treatment of the Black figure in the boat? With reference to Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon Coming On, 1840, Jack Lindsey is quoted: “It was characteristic of Turner that he should find a great aesthetic release through an image which concentrated his social thinking and at the same time was deeply imbedded in the poetic tradition he so loved.”[ xiii] Other modern Turner scholars have recognized the importance of this rare iconic inclusion in another Turner painting, The Deluge c.1805. There the Black figure is again seen as a hero. Much to Turner’s credit this should be understood for what it is meant to represent—a symbol beyond equality. jmw

JMW Turner was unmistakably benevolent towards Black men, almost in a personal way. An explanation for this was given by Thornbury when he wrote: “The hours that the boy [Turner] with the flowing locks and collarless coat of puce or brown had to attend to, were those of Sir Joshua’s studio—ten till four. When Turner comes, the negro servant will receive him with smiles." [xiv] It would be normal that the impressionable youth from a home with a frightfully mad mother would find solace in being regularly greeted with a radiant smile from anyone at the time. It just so happened that the kind servant in Joshua Reynolds’ studio where the acolyte, “Billy,” studied and helped out—was Black.

Detail from the Rescue boat features one lone Black man as a key figure within this three-man vignette. The Black man points towards the men clinging to the spar as he helps the other two haul them in by rope.

In turn, one can understand Turner’s anguish over slave trading, something that was certainly a standard of the day. One must believe that it was the type of commerce especially dear to those countries with a strong shipping industry like Britain. The last lines from Turner’s poem that accompanied Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying:


                                      Declare the Typhoon coming.
                                         Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
                                         The dead and dying - ne’er heed their chains.
                                         Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
                                         Where is thy market now?
J.M.W. Turner, Slavers
, detail showing a proud leg of the shackled slave

Proud-shackled leg of the drowning slave,
To creatures voraciously heartily gave.

Here Turner tells us that Slavers would throw their shackled spoilage overboard (the dead and dying slaves) in order to blame their losses on bad weather. The ill slaves that no longer had commercial value were apparently cast into the sea and their numbers would be calculated for insurance purposes. This practice came to public attention after the court-marshal of the captain of the slave ship Zong. An epidemic broke out onboard in 1783. “The captain then ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard, as insurance could be claimed for those drowned at sea, but not for those who died of disease.”[xv]  Although knowledge of this was not broadly known until the publication of T. Clarkson’s History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1808, Turner proves with Shipwreck, the Rescue c1802 to be somewhat of a visionary both pictorially and poetically in his quest to abet social justice and humanitarian principals. jmw    

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[1] If one were to take into account Turners high regard for the opinions of Reynolds, and in light of his Romantic need to express the sublime, Turner may have believed painting portraits to be restricting and thus a futile exercise.


[i] Jean Selz, Turner, (Crown Publishers, Inc. – New York, 1977), 25.

[ii] Jack Lindsay, Turner: The Man and His Art, (Franklin Watts, New York, 1985), 9.

[iii] William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (Oxford University Press, 1978), 158.

[iv] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 319.

[v] Ibid.13.

[vi] John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin, Turner, (George Braziller Inc., New York, 1964), 74, 76.

[vii] Jack Lindsay, J. M. W. Turner, A Critical Biography, (New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1966), 89.

[viii] A.J. Finberg, The Life and Times of J.M.W. Turner RA, (Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, Second Edition 1961), 99.

[ix] Spectator, (May 12 1803) and Athenaeum (May 12 1803), Turner 1775-1851, (The Tate Gallery, 1974), 52.

[x] Eric Shanes, Turner’s England, A Survey In Watercolours, (Trafalgar Square Publishing, Vermont USA, 1990), 21.

[xi] Jack Lindsay, Turner: The Man and His Art, (Franklin Watts, New York, 1985), 44.

[xii] Eric Shanes, J.M.W. Turner, The Foundations of Genius, (The Taft Museum Cincinnati, Ohio; Corbett Foundation; The Hennegan Co. printers, 1986), 29.

[xiii] Martin Butlin, The Oxford Companion To J.M.W. Turner, (Oxford University Press Inc., New York, Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin, and Luke Herrmann, 2001), 303.

[xiv] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 1, 64.

[xv] Martin Butlin, and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, (Yale University Press New Haven and London, 1984), text, 237.

[xvi] Gerald Wilkinson, Turner’s Early Sketchbooks, (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 1972), 61.

[xvii] John Gage, J.M.W. Turner, A Wonderful Range of Mind, (Yale University Press, 1991), 205.

[xviii] Gerald Wilkinson, Turner’s Early Sketchbooks, (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 1972), 52.

[xix] Ibid, 39.