Archive for October 12th, 2013

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate an image of contemporary events

For this annotation I have chosen Turner’s The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale, also known as A Disaster at Sea, also known as Fire at Sea, ?c 1835, oil on canvas. I saw this painting in Adelaide earlier this year, part of the Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master. You can post of that visit at 4-May-2013 and a photograph I took then (with permission of course) is below. The much better image on the Tate website is at

The picture was never exhibited in Turner’s lifetime, is generally regarded as incomplete, and clearly there have been issues in establishing the precise subject and the date of the work. However it is now believed to show the shipwreck of the Amphitrite in 1833. The ship was carrying a load of women convicts, bound for Australia. It ran aground off Boulogne. Assistance to carry the convicts and crew to safety was offered by French sailors, but apparently rejected by the captain on the grounds he did not have the authority to land the convicts anywhere other than Australia. The ship broke up in the gales and high seas with the lost of almost all lives (including the captain’s).

I chose this picture because it meets the assignment requirements, I’ve seen it in person, and of course it has the preferred link to Australia.

turner_linesThe painting is quite large, 1714 x 2203 mm, and had quite an emotional impact seen in person – my comments at the time included “the waves crashing over the sinking vessel, the sprays of foam and swirling water, the tumult of the sea adding to the horror of the women convicts”. There is a pyramid of bodies clinging to the breaking ship, surrounded by great swirling vortices in the sea and sky pulling the group apart – including the vortex formed by the bodies of women and a child in the foreground to the right.

turner_07The water is seething, rushing up at the people in wild spatters and flecks of foam then sucking them away to their deaths. The water both pushes up the pyramid of humanity but is also undermining and collapsing it.

turner_paintThis next photograph is pretty awful as photos go, but it does show the uneven surface of the picture, the lumps of paint adding to the sense of confusion and energy and tumult and drama, perhaps even the lack of control, the danger of the situation.

turner_facesIn my memory the faces and bodies of the people contrasted with the rough seas, being smooth and with more defined detail. Again the poor photo from my mobile phone doesn’t really show this, but I can convince myself that any flecks of texture are water and foam. I’m not sure if this is intention, or related to those areas being the most unfinished in the painting. I’ve also noticed in some paintings that faces (especially) and figures appear much smoother and more detailed than other areas and have wondered if it’s a choice or because the artist put in extra effort on a focus point or it’s the “money-shot” of a commission or …(annoyingly I can’t find a note of a specific example, so will have to look out next time I’m at the Gallery).

The painting is mainly middle to light in value, with no real darks. Colour is also restricted – greys, dull blue and whites in the sea and sky, yellow, red and white on the figures, and browns on the right side. One of the previous titles has mentioned “Fire” but I found that hard to see. Perhaps on the far right of the painting is the hull of the ship and the red-brown in the sea and sky on that side could be reflections of flames. The focus remains on the light, central pyramid of struggling and drowning bodies.

In the exhibition catalogue there is the statement that “Turner’s pyramidal composition is clearly derived from the celebrated Raft of the Medusa (1819; Louvre, Paris) by Théodore Géricault” (Warrell, 2013). See for an image. There is a pyramid of people / bodies on a raft in the sea as a result of incompetent bungling by those in charge, however to me the two works are quite different. One is in a violent storm, the victims in immediate danger of violent death. In the other, the victims have endured and are seen in a moment of hope for rescue for the few survivors. In Turner’s work the swirling sea and sky occupy most of the canvas, although the wreckage and people are the focus. In Géricault’s work almost the entire canvas is filled by the raft and its occupants.


Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
A shipwreck off a rocky coast

I think the painting by Loutherbourg that I showed in my last post (10-Oct-2013) is much more similar in both look and composition. This work is in the Art Gallery of NSW –

loutherbourg_2linesturner_linesOn the left is the Loutherbourg with my lines picked out. Above a thumbnail of the Turner with lines is repeated so they can be seen together. Both pictures show a shipwreck in the moments when the boat is breaking up. Both works have a vortex of clouds and swooping, crashing lines of waves. Both have a pyramid as a focus, although in the Loutherbourg it is mainly the jagged rocks on which the ship has foundered. To my eyes both have a secondary echoing diagonal to the right of the pyramid. Both have a minor focus of drowning bodies in the foreground at the base of the pyramid – a swirl on the right in the Turner and a more indistinct body to the left on the Loutherbourg.

There are so many ways to extend this annotation, if only time allowed, such as:
* The influence of Loutherbourg on Turner. I found a reference suggesting that at one stage Turner lived next-door to the family and harassed Loutherbourg’s wife to get information (Chandler and Gilmartin, 2011, p.195).
* Ideas on why the work was never finished. I think the detail of that mass of bodies, for example if similar to Géricault’s work, would be very difficult to combine with the sublime, atmospheric, color and form, wild painting of the rest of the canvas. On the other hand it has been suggested that a finished work had the potential to be the “Guernica of nineteenth-century British Art” (Schama, 2006. pp. 236-95).
* The (any) Australian and convict transportation links.
* Meaning and symbology within this particular painting. Is it a statement about bureaucratic incompetence? I think there can be no suggestion of redemption in such needless waste of life, although there may be a suggestion of light behind the clouds on the left. Alternatively could it have a personal aspect? Venning (1985) claimed “It is beyond dispute that shipwreck imagery bulked large in Turner’s mental life, and he used it constantly as a metaphor for his state of mind and his professional cares” (p.304).
* It would be interesting to compare and contrast other works on the theme of shipwreck in Turner’s work – for example:
The shipwreck (1805)
Wreck of a transport ship (1810)
The Loss of an East Indiaman [formerly ‘Loss of a Man of War’] (c.1818)
Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)
I also find the capture and development of ideas in Turner’s sketchbooks fascinating, including:
The shipwreck sketchbook (1803-04)
The fire at sea sketchbook (1834)


Chandler, J., Gilmartin, K. (ed) (2011) Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Culture, 1780-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [extract only online] Available from (Accessed 10-Oct-2013)

Schama, S. (2006) Simon Schama’s power of art Cited in Warrell, I (2013) “A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale” in Turner from the Tate: The making of a master, London: Tate Publishing, p.197.

Venning, B (1985), ‘A MACABRE CONNOISSEURSHIP: TURNER, BYRON AND THE APPREHENSION OF SHIPWRECK SUBJECTS IN EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND’, Art History, 8, 3, pp. 303-319, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 October 2013.

Warrell, I (2013) “A Disaster at Sea, also known as The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale” in Turner from the Tate: The making of a master, London: Tate Publishing.

UA1-WA:P2-p3-Ex Annotate an image of contemporary events
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Exercise: Annotate an image of contemporary events


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