Video of the Day


Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

Live and Active Affiliates
This area does not yet contain any content.

Entries in herman melville (4)


In Which It Was A Fight We Would Later Have A Dozen Times

by joan brown



The second time was at Christmas. My best friend took me over to her boyfriend’s mom’s two-bedroom house with the intention of introducing me to the older brother, who was in town from New York. “He has a pompadour and this big face,” was her only description. When we got there the mother was in bed and the brother was sleeping on the sofa in the uncomfortably small sitting room. We startled him awake and promptly installed ourselves on the adjacent loveseat, speaking gently and staring at him inquisitively, hands folded in laps, like caseworkers. His voice rumbled with a shower of gravel in a wheelbarrow. He put on some music. I asked him, after an awkwardly small amount of conversation, if I could touch his hand. I asked because it dangled over the back of his chair like an accessory, and it looked coarse and weathered. I knew he’d been working as a commercial fisherman off the Alaskan coast. I needed to fact-check.

Maybe you have never suffered from this fetish. Maybe you didn’t spend lonely Friday nights in high school charting every tic of Travis Bickle’s waxen face over the entire 113 minutes and crying at the part when he takes Betsy to the dirty movie. Some women are sick people. As children, they take the Beats too seriously, and then they go off to college and lament all of the squirrelly young fellows around them who manage to seduce with unsteady intellect and little else. Like how Jake Barnes describes Robert Cohn as someone who did something because he read about it in a book once. These women seek the antidote to that; the man who is the book, not just the reader. We dabble unconsciously in Marxist literary criticism and fake-suffer from the fact that there are no Men around. “Where are the Men?” we ask, like a team of Marlon Brandos will just materialize on the far side of the quad, all leather-daddied out and everything.

by joan brown

So this fisherman person was a revelation. He never went to college; it was a fight we would later have a dozen times. He wooed me with inimitable stories about stealing chickens from Hasidim, gutting fifty pounds of octopus, getting picked up by a transvestite so he would have a place to sleep indoors for the night. I gave him an AK Press copy of You Can’t Win, and he patly told me he used to volunteer at AK Press. We disagreed about Charles Bukowski, and he spent an entire day scouring every bookstore in town until he found a copy of Ham on Rye, which he wrapped nicely and presented to me at work. I read it on Christmas Day. It was a perfect burst of romance for whatever it was. I wish we hadn’t ruined it.

Our relationship was confusing. He left to fish the crab derby and I’d hear from him once a week, in strange Alaska time, which was usually at the end of my college night. The more weeks passed, the more he seemed like an apparition. The more I began to subtly imitate his coolly slurred diction, his impenetrable slang. The more I flirted with women in the way that I imagined he would. I didn’t want to love him as much as I wanted to be like him. It was a lame and quiet fury. The fury of a sad person.

If you’re from Alabama but you’re not presently there, everyone will call you Bama. As the girlfriend, I was forbidden from using this moniker. I was hardly able to say it with a straight face anyway, seeing as how we were sleeping a block away from the University of Alabama campus. If I drank too much and it slipped out, he would scowl like I’d called him some nasty epithet. Sometimes when I came home from class he would be drunk already. He was almost his sweetest then, like a proud father watching his daughter succeed. As the night progressed, though, this appreciation would curdle into resentment, and I’d get an earful of what exactly I didn’t learn about the world from behind my ivy walls. The thing is, though, I loved being talked to like that. He was right. I didn’t know. And because I loved it, I would explode with defensiveness. 

by joan brown

He got his entire throat tattooed while he stayed with me. He stalked around the apartment with the residual ink-and-pus mixture oozing onto the neckline of his wifebeater. He laughed in slow motion. One night in May, we threw an impromptu pool party at a shitty apartment complex where only one of our friends lived, and he swam in a pair of my bikini bottoms. He filched wooden pallets from behind the Publix next door and built a fire in the cookout pit. It was like California all of a sudden. Everything he did extemporaneously came off without a hitch. He was desperate with charm. I would beam at him from short distances, watching him operate completely without anxiety. I was so envious of this human.

Our fights got worse. One of his last nights in town, I didn’t eat enough food, and drank for most of the evening. We ended up wrestling on my bed. He pinned me down by my shoulders and I headbutted him in ludicrous self-defense. The blood from his nose dripped over my face and neck and onto my pillow. When  I sat up, I moved to strike him again and he clocked me in my right eye. I saw stars like a cartoon character. I slumped against the wall, knowing I’d been defeated. A few days later, when he was out, I called my ex-boyfriend, with whom I’d also fought like this, to tell him what had happened. I still don’t know why I told him, but I was almost certainly boasting. Like a tough guy.

I experienced a four-day hangover the week he left. I thought I’d been poisoned, or given some kind of disease. It was obvious things were bad and may not continue. He was silent for two weeks, and when he decided to call me again, I was already seeing someone else. He remained furious until a few months later when he called to clear the air and tell me he was also in love with someone else. A local Alaskan girl. We were glad for each other.

The thing is, it’s unfair to fetishize someone else’s life, even if they portray their life to you as some kind of glamorous fiction. Even being the antidote to the college boy doesn’t completely free you from the conscriptions of your imagination. He loved Moby Dick and he became a fisherman. Growing up he felt he was the ugly outcast. When he discovered Henry Chianski, his feelings made sense and he began to adorn his body with disfiguring tattoos in lieu of acne vulgaris. I also process fiction like this; many of us do. We all have small ways of emulating the lives of unreal people we hoped we’d become. The line of truth between him and me was that I was a woman, a pretty Southern woman, wholly uncomfortable in my skin. What I felt like in my soul was the heedless wanderer, the working-class hero, the undereducated alpha. I was imprisoned by my culture, by my body. He was my most realized attempt to escape, and it didn’t work. 

by joan brown

We grew up, and our memories of the people we were together became more foreign to us. He traveled the world, settled in San Francisco, then L.A., became a fashion maven, a filmmaker. I lingered in the South, pitifully literary and resisting as many cultural traditions as I could: a permanent, pointless rebel in a land where rebellion was a regional myth, not a pastime.

We remained in touch, emailing every now and then over the years, saying nothing in particular. I married a lithe Texas hippie and moved to Northern Italy. I grew more miserable. Married life hurt me and Italian culture stifled me even more than I was used to. I was in the most meaningful relationship I’d ever known and was totally at odds with the concept of losing the fiction of myself for this greater cause. I drank in my resistance, and in my drinking, revealed I was no different at all from the angry little person I was eight years ago, clawing and snapping, physically struggling against the person who says they know better than me, and is saying so because they love me.

The blistering morning this spring I conceded and decided to get sober, I came across a piece of crushing news. This Bama, my sailor of yore, had thrown himself headfirst into the bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He broke his neck, his back, and shattered both his femurs, but survived. Just as I always believed, he is a miracle. How we managed to twin our suffering for so long, I have no idea. True, I have never quite reached the dark heart of despair that he has, but crashing into cold tiled floors, screaming at the sunset from the top of a medieval wall, tearing at my chest, I feel I have come close. And how strange that we surfaced almost at the same time? Immediately I sent him a note of condolence and he wrote back, gushing with wisdom and positivity: “Realize you are perfect right now. Everything is okay and everything can change in an instant to the life you always wanted. No matter what. When you are happy and hopeful your husband will be happy and hopeful.” I have a postcard he made in the hospital, a watercolor of a green face with a giant blue and pink eye, in the style of a Toltec carving, inscribed with a quote on the back from one of his friends there, “Maybe life’s not as hard as you thought it was.” I am already, almost instantly better. I just hope that he is also now free.

Natalie Elliott is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about being in a great man's bed. She writes the column Miss On Scene for The Oxford American. You can find her twitter here.

Paintings by Joan Brown.

"Here's To You" - Picnic (mp3)

"I'm Here" - Picnic (mp3)

The new album from Picnic is entitled The Weather's Fine.

by joan brown


In Which We Really Hope It Doesn't Come To This

First Fact


Herman Melville was born in New York August 1, 1819, and on the 12th of that month the Essex, a well-found whaler of 238 tons, sailed from Nantucket with George Pollard, Jr. as captain, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy mates, 6 of her complement of 20 men Negroes, bound for the Pacific Ocean, victualled and provided for two years and a half.

A year and three months later, on November 20, 1820, just south of the equator in longitude 119 West, this ship, on a calm day, with the sun at ease, was struck head on twice by a bull whale, a spermeceti about 80 feet long, and with her bows stove in, filled and sank.

Her twenty men set out in three open whaleboats for the coast of South America 2000 miles away. They had bread (200 lb a boat), water (65 gallons), and some Galapagos turtles. Although they were at the time no great distance from Tahiti, they were ignorant of the temper of the natives and feared cannibalism.

Their first extreme sufferings commenced a week later when they made the mistake of eating, in order to make their supply last, some bread which had got soaked by the sea's wash. To alleviate the thirst which followed, they killed a turtle for its blood. The sight revolted the stomachs of the men.

In the first weeks of December their lips began to crack and swell, and a glutinous saliva collected in the mouth, intolerable to the taste.

Their bodies commenced to waste away, and possessed so little strength they had to assist each other in peforming some of the body's weakest functions. Barnacles collected on the boats' bottoms, and they tore them off for food. A few flying fish struck their sails, fell into the boats, and were swallowed raw.

After a month of the open sea they were gladdened at the sight of a small island which they took to be Ducie but was Elizabeth Isle. Currents and storm had taken them a thousand miles off their course.

They found water on the island after a futile search for it from rocks which they picked at, where moisture was, with their hatchets. It was discovered in a small spring in the sand at the extreme verge of ebbtide. They could gather it only at low water. The rest of the time the sea flowed over the spring to the depth of six feet.

Twenty men could not survive on the island and, to give themselves the chance to reach the mainlan before the supplies they had from the ship should be gone, sixteen of them put back to sea December 27th.

The three who stayed, Thomas Chapple of Plymouth, England and Williams Wright and Seth Weeks of Barnstable, Mass., took shelter in caves among the rocks. In one they found eight human skeletons, side by side as though they had lain down and died together.

The only food the three had was a sort of blackbird which they caught when at roost in trees and whose blood they sucked. With the meat of the bird, and a few eggs, they chewed a plant tasting like peppergrass which they found in the crevices of the rocks. They survived.


The three boats, with the seventeen men divided among them, moved under the sun across ocean together until the 12th of January when, during the night, the one under the command of Owen Chase, First Mate, became separated from the other two.

Already one of the seventeen had died, Matthew Joy, Second Mate. He had been buried January 10th. When Charles Shorter, Negro, out of the same boat as Joy, died on January 23rd, his body was shared among the men of that boat and the Captain's, and eaten.

Two days more and Lawson Thomas, Negro, died and was eaten. Again two days and Isaac Shepherd, Negro, died and was eaten. The bodies were roasted to dryness by means of fires kindled on the ballast sand at the bottom of the boats.

Two days later, the 29th, during the night, the boat which had been Matthew Joy's got separated from the captain and was never heard of again. When she disappeared three men still lived, William Bond, Negro, Obed Hendricks, and Joseph West.

In the Captain's boat now alone on the sea, four men kept on. The fifth, Samuel Reed, Negro, had been eaten for strength at his death the day before. Within three days these four men, calculating the miles they had to go, decided to draw two lots, one to choose who should die that the others might live, and one to choose who should kill him. The youngest, Owen Coffin, serving on his first voyage as a cabin boy to learn his family's trade, lost. It became the duty of Charles Ramsdale, also of Nantucket, to shoot him. He did, and he, the Captain and Brazilla Ray, Nantucket, ate him.

That was February 1, 1821. On February 11th, Ray died himself, and was eaten. On February 23rd, the Captain and Ramsdale were picked up by the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin, Captain Zimri Coffin.

The men in the third boat, under the command of Owen Chase, the first mate, held out the longest. They had become separated from the other two boats before hunger and thirst had riven any of the Essex's men to extremity. Owen Chase's crew had buried their first death, Richard Peterson, Negro, on January 20th.

It was not until February 8th, when Isaac Cole died in convulsions, that Owen Chase was forced, some two weeks later than in the other boats, to propose to his two men, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson, that they should eat of their own flesh. It happened to them this once, in this way: they separated the limbs from the body and cut all the flesh from the bones, after which they opened up the body, took out the heart, closed the body again, sewed it up as well as they could, and committed it to the sea.

They drank of the heart and ate it. They ate a few pieces of the flesh and hung the rest, cut in thin strips, to dry in the sun. They made a fire, as the Captain had, and roasted some to serve them the next day.

The next morning they found that the flesh in the sun had spoiled, had turned green. They made another fire to cook it to prevent its being wholly lost. For five days, they lived on it, not using of their remnant of bread.

They recruited their strength on the flesh, eating it in small peices with salt water. By the 14th they were able to make a few attempts at guiding the boat with an oar.

On the 15th the flesh was all comsumed and they had left the last of their bread, two sea biscuits. Their limbs had swelled during the last two days and now began to pain them excessively. They judged they still had 300 miles to go.

On the the 17th the settling of a cloud led Chase to think land was near. Notwithstanding, the next morning, Nickerson, 17 years of age, after having bailed the boat, lay down, drew a piece of canvas up over him, and said that he wished to die immediately. On the 19th, at 7 in the mornning, Lawrence saw a sail at seven miles, and the three of them were taken up by the brig Indian of London, Captain William Crozier.

It is not known what happened in later years to the three men who survived the island. But the four Nantucket men, who, with the Captain, survived the sea, all became captains themselves. They died old, Nickerson at 77, Ramsdale, who was 19 on the Essex, at 75, Chase who was 24, at 73, Lawrence who was 30, at 80, and Pollard, the captain, who had been 31 at the time, lived until 1870, age 81.

The Captain, on his return to Nantucket, took charge of the ship Two Brothers, another whaler, and five months from home struck a reef to the westward of the Sandwich Islands. The ship was a total loss, and Pollard never went to sea again. At the time of the second wreck he said: "Now I am utterly ruined. No owner will ever trust me with a whaler again, for all will say I am an unlucky man." He ended his life as the night watch of Nantucket town, protecting the houses and people in the dark.

Owen Chase was always fortunate. In 1832 the Charles Carrol was built for him on Brant Point, Nantucket, and he filled her twice, each time with 2600 barrels of sperm oil. In his last years he took to hiding food in the attic of his house.

Charles Olson died in 1970. The preceding text is excerpted from Call Me Ishmael, Olson's great study on Melville.

"Huibuh" - Ellen Allien (mp3)

"Dream" - Ellen Allien (mp3)

"You" - Ellen Allien (mp3)

The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale's heart.

—Paley's Theology (one of Melville's 80 epigraphs for Moby Dick)


In Which JMW Turner Paints In The Major Details

The Whale ShipJMW Turner and the Sublime


I did not expect to escape, but felt bound to record it if I did.

- JMW Turner

The Whale Ship by Joseph Mallord William Turner hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was first exhibited at the 1845 Royal Academy show when Turner was 70 years old. He had been a full member of the Royal Academy since age 26, and in 1845 (as the Academy’s oldest member) had acted as the Academy president during the illness of Sir Martin Archer Schee. Along with three other paintings involving the subject of a whale hunting between the years of 1845 and 1846, The Whale Ship was received with some confusion from both the public and critical realms. These works, even when viewed in the spectrum of Turner’s incredibly dynamic and adventurous career, proved to be initially shocking for their subject matter.

Although the struggle between man and sea always captivated Turner and his patrons alike, these four paintings are the only works which discuss the subject of whaling specifically. Turner had been interested in a multitude of themes throughout his lengthy career, and often filled sketch books with preliminary studies for his paintings, as is the case for his Whalers series. Today it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum next to a work by John Constable and an earlier work by Turner himself entitled Saltash with Water Ferry.

Saltash with Water FerryBoth the Constable and early Turner appear impossibly still and calm in comparison to The Whale Ship, which still gives one the immediate impression of might and awe. Turner’s Whale Ship is a window into a completely different realm, into the vision of a painter late in his career, and into the sublime.

This is not the first time that we have seen Turner render sea creatures, man tossing amongst waves, or ships bracing themselves against unruly tides. In The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhoon Coming On of 1840, we see all of these elements incorporated. A ghostly ship appears to be consumed by the churning sea, a violent sky ignited by a glowering sun, blinds the viewer to the horizon, while in the foreground figures of slaves are rendered helpless in the wake. In the bottom right corner we see fish rushing to consume what has been abandoned and discarded by the condemned ship. The ravenous fish indeed seem born out of a dream, their cartoonish forms recalling early Minoan interpretations of sea life.

Slavers throwing overboard the death and dyingWhen The Slave Ship was shown first in the Royal Academy of 1840, Turner exhibited it with a poem he had written in 1812, entitled The Fallacies of Hope:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;

Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds

Declare the Typhoon's 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?

John Ruskin, a critic who championed Turner’s artwork and was the first owner of The Slave Ship, wrote "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this." The Slave Ship, painted only 5 years prior to The Whale Ship, is a work which exhibits tremendous violence and struggle, just as the bloody battle Turner would later depict between man and whale. The Slave Ship is said to have been painted out of Turner’s desire to assist the abolitionist movement in England, so it is interesting to consider the motives behind yet another and infamous image of violent sea struggle. Was The Whale Ship as informed and impassioned as The Slave Ship, was it just Turner’s sheer fascination with adventure, or simply to attract a wealthy patron?

Ships in a breeze, 1808It is of popular opinion that The Whale Ship was painted with the intention of attracting a buyer, Elhanan Bicknell, who was involved in the fishing industry, and more specifically in arctic whaling. Bicknell purchased the work form Turner after coming to his Queen Anne Street studio in January of 1845 to see what Turner referred to as "A whale or two on canvas."

He bought the work, but later returned it to Turner after discovering the artist had finished some of the painting with water colors. This practice was not uncommon for Turner, who often incorporated water color and other finishing techniques into his work to achieve the transparency of light he desired. However, when Bicknell attempted to wipe the painting, he found some of the color had transferred onto his handkerchief. Feeling like he got less than he paid for, Bicknell returned the work to Turner claiming that it was not finished. It is said that before Whalers was shown in the Royal Academy show of 1845, Turner had painted in the major details of the work on varnishing day.

Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor, 1803Turner had a long history of actually adjusting, if not completely finishing, his works on varnishing day instead of simply applying a varnish, as was the custom. This practice may have been to make sure that the work was well received in the lighting of the Academy, as Turner was often referred to as a “the painter of light” and had a particular obsession with rendering it perfectly. Other accounts of this practice throughout his career point to the artist's pure showmanship, as he demonstrated his hand in front of the friends, family, and potential buyers that were in usual attendance on varnishing day. There are many accounts of his dramatic finishing brushstrokes, of readings of poetry before his works, and many other grandiose or theatrical gestures.

Although the painting may have been completed swiftly, Turner did keep a sketch book for his Whale series, and the preliminary drawings give some indication that the four works were intended as a quartet. In 1840 Turner undoubtedly saw a painting exhibited in the Royal Academy by John Ward, a whale fishing scene depicting Hull, an arctic fishing town. Ward directly informed the viewers of the 1840 exhibition which ships were in the painting, and the direct history he was referencing through the exhibition title: "Northern Whale Fishery: portraits of the Swan, one of the vessels so long frozen up in the Arctic regions, and the Isabella, formerly commanded by Captain Ross when on discovery and afterwards commanded by Captain Humphreys at the time he rescued that distinguished navigator." Turner may have indeed been influenced by this, as his later whaling series would also directly confront historical events and include instances which occurred during arctic exploration.

In the 1840s, it was well known in Britain that the whaling industry provided some of the most dangerous and brutal work available to man. Turner himself was fascinated with accounts of whaling crews and sea expeditions, and took in many firsthand written accounts, many of which were published regularly in newspapers. Turner was good friends with George William Manby, a man who had experience in Arctic expeditions and Yarmouth barrack-master. George William Manby made a voyage to Greenland in 1821 in the company of a renowned whaler by the name of William Scoresby. Together they were testing out Manby’s newly designed harpoon guns, and upon their return had written an account of the voyage that was published, including many details about arctic climate and the hardships of whale hunting. Turner would undoubtedly hear of the trip, as well as other adventures which Manby had participated in.

Fire Aboard Ship, 1835This captivated Turner, as he had a career-long love of interpreting the sea, and these stories only furthered his fantasies of sublime struggle. The paintings, as well as Turner’s interest in the whale industry, were also influenced by Thomas Beale’s Natural History of a Sperm Whale, and were exhibited with reference to his text. Beale’s work captivated many artists of the time, as the whaling industry was of immense interest and profit, and not much was known publicly of these deep sea dwellers before his book was published. The Whale Ship does in fact depict a scene which was sourced from real life accounts, and Turner claimed that it related directly to a story depicted on page 175 in Thomas Beale’s History of a Sperm Whale.

The account describes the struggle of three whale boats which pursued a whale for several hours before harpooning it successfully. The whale sunk below the boats, rose again, and overturned one of the crafts violently, before sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor itself. In the original narrative the whalers' struggle is not one that entails success, and involves the loss of both their kill and crew. As dramatic as the original account may seem, in reality it took place on a relatively calm day and did not occur near the main whale ship.

On Turner’s canvas, of course, the drama of the scene is imaginatively enhanced as we see all of the whaling boats perpendicular to the horizon and the crewmen helplessly spilling out. The whale vessel itself rocks against a stormy current, and the sky and sea spray are almost indiscernible. The sails of the ship are thick and impasto like, as if smeared violently, they appear wind blown.

Just below we see a cluster of whale boats tumbling in what appears to be the force caused by the striking of the whale’s tail. Tiny figures fall helplessly from these crafts, which in themselves evoke a sort of futurist rendering in their frenzied motion. Everything in the painting is kinetic and yet frozen. Both the whale and the figures themselves are at the height of vulnerability, each threatened greatly by the other. The beastly whale is depicted violently thrashing and spewing blood. Its form appears as though painted swiftly, its skin rendered in a deep plum. The sky above hangs ominously, giving us no indication of distance, temperature, or time of day - only the notion of a great salty saturated mist. The canvas is predominantly white, and brings to mind the “White School" (Turner, Constable, Augustus Wall Callcott) described by Sir George Beaumont as painters who "discarded the brown and black tones traditional in landscape."

In his later works Turner had indeed developed a penchant for disregarding linear properties and the traditional of perspective. This shift in focus, from the linear to the frenzied and momentary, is crucial to note when considering the works produced in Turner’s later career. As one critic has said, “to do justice to Turner, it should always be remembered that he is the painter, not of reflections, but of immediate sensations."

These immediate sensations, the terror of the scene, were not born just of Turner’s creative imagination, but of real accounts of hardship reported at the exact time he was working on his Whaling series. Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus: Another Fish! of 1846 depicts a scene of victory, in which the whalers' butcher their captured whale. However, the Erebus in reality was not a whale ship, but in fact a Bomber destined for Arctic exploration from 1839 to 1843. In 1845 the Erebus was under the command of Sir John Franklin, who was in search of the North-West passage.

It became publicly known in 1846 that nothing, in fact, had been heard of the ship since July 1845, and that it was trapped in the ice. By christening one of his whale ships, the four of which (as indicated by studies done prior to the works) were meant to be a series, Turner draws a parallel between the dangers of Arctic exploration, which was highly criticized at the time, and Whale fishing, an often deadly profession. What we might know today through reality television shows such as The Deadliest Catch (a show premised around Alaskan king crab fishing, involving the dangers of drowning, freezing, and ships frozen into ice banks), Turner aimed to shed light onto through his four canvases. A crew member who had survived another well publicized arctic exploration ship wreck (that of The Jane) wrote of the experience, “We resigned ourselves to divine providence."

Turner, whose works frequently approached the sublime and otherworldly, would surely have read such accounts and aimed to evoke them in these works. His concern at the arctic exploration proved to be founded, when in 1848 it was discovered that indeed the Erebus had been trapped in ice, and none had survived. These events, Turner’s awareness of them and other sea faring losses and direct accounts, evoke the last lines of his 1812 poem; "Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope! / Where is thy market now?"

The reception of The Whale Ship was indeed mixed. Many critics felt that Turner was in fact losing his sanity in his old age, specifically because the works became less and less restrained and far more feverish in execution. What we might consider some of Turner’s most beautiful and revolutionary works today - for instance Norham Castle, Sunrise (also of 1845) - earned him much criticism and doubt.

Critics of his own time were not prepared to cope with his revolutionary and deeply involved approach to the canvas, and instead generally rallied to have paintings that made linear sense and did not allow for any confusion. A popular form of insult, it seemed, was to relate Turner’s paintings to unpleasant food items. William Thackeray exclaimed that Slavers Throwing Over The Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On resembled “huge slimy poached eggs." The Times reported that The Seat of Prince Albert of Coburg Near Coburg "represents nothing in nature beyond eggs and spinach. The lake is a composition in which salad oils abound, and the art of cookery is more predominant than the art of painting," while Ariel: a Snowstorm was written up by the Athenaeum as such: "This gentleman has, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of eggs, or currant jelly, — here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff."

The critics were indeed relentless, and complained that Turner had not given them an honest account of this whaling experience but instead a giant mess of white mist. They unanimously felt that this work was hard to define, and that the scene was too washed over and unclear, as was the case with many of his later (and increasingly more immediate) paintings. The work was not completely overlooked, however, and is said to have inspired a short story by Herman Melville, which he later used as inspiration for his great romantic work Moby Dick. Melville owned many engravings by Turner, the subjects of many of them involving seafaring adventure. It is interesting to note this connection between an American author and a British painter, both involved in the romantic movement, and their unique interest in sea-faring struggle.

norham castle, sunrise, 1845William Thackeray wrote “That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! they turn out to be a ship with all her sails." Here, it seems, that Thackeray joins with Turner’s regular defender, John Ruskin, in reveling in this new work. The Whale series which Turner executed towards the very end of his career, today, remains a mystery in its intent.

Though there are direct sources which link to the motivation behind these works being the possible patronship of Elhanan Bicknel, a great amount of evidence points to Turner’s direct relationship to, and interest in, the vulnerability of the whaling industry at the time. Shortly after this series had debuted, the industry took a dramatic plunge. Similarly, Arctic exploration was carried out with great precaution, and through public publishing of the horrors of sailor’s accounts, public awareness had grown and safety issues were finally addressed. The Whale Ship takes its place among Turner’s best and most evocative paintings. Visually stunning, disorienting, and disarming, we can see that even in his late career the artist was breaking new ground and intent on exploring his own boundaries.

The most arresting quality of Turner’s painting ability seems to be his absolute fearlessness and dedication to his own empirical vision, even if at the end of his life it was often times an empiricism born out of his own imagining. I believe strongly that The Whale Ship makes the point of the importance of personal vision, that of the same which would be debated only 33 years later in 1878 by John Ruskin and James Abbott McNeil Whistler. It is Turner’s undeniable vision, as Simon Schama put it, “shrouded with the poetic veil of memory and history” that triumphantly released the painting world from its own linear and logical confinement. In his free rendering, Turner aimed only to accurately express the sublime horror that one would not be able to experience unless one did indeed go to sea. Even at the end of his career, his allegiance was always to truth, to light, and to the sublime. The Whale Ship, viewed in the context of Turner’s lengthy career, ranks among Turner’s most tumultuous and brilliant proclamations in paint.

Amanda McCleod is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about James Ensor. She tumbles here.

"A Mundane Phone Call to Jack Parsons" - A Sunny Day in Glasgow (mp3)

"Wake Up Pretty" - A Sunny Day in Glasgow (mp3)

"Ghost in the Graveyard" - A Sunny Day in Glasgow (mp3)