Life and death on the waves

The National Maritime Museum in London is currently exhibiting Turner and the Sea, a collection of JMW Turner’s paintings inspired by the inconstant nature of the sea.

Turner (1775 - 1851) seems to have been particularly inspired by scenes of seafaring chaos. One of the first paintings on display, The Shipwreck, immediately transports us into a scene of writhing waves, rising to meet a floundering sail. The sole specks of colour on the canvas, amid the shades of black and white, depict displaced sailors, peeking out of the water in disarray. Turner creates a clear sense of danger with these works: on first seeing Turner’s The Wreck of a Transport Ship, one admiral was reported to have remarked ‘no ship or boat could live in such a sea’.

Despite these dramatic scenes, Turner was also a great documenter of the calmer aspects of life at sea: he depicts fish markets on cluttered beaches resting beside the honeyed lights of Venice, crawling with tourism and industry.

What Turner understood, and managed to capture so evocatively, is the endless fascination provided by such a simple natural phenomenon. We’d need a bigger boat to gather up the writers and artists inspired by the ocean, from Shakespeare’s shipwrecked heroines, to Moby Dick and, more recently, Life of Pi.

The media, in turn, continue to be fascinated by tales of nautical derring-do, of survival against the odds, of rescued fishermen and marauding pirates.

There’s a reason why John Masefield’s poem ‘Sea Fever’ is so often read aloud at funerals. The sea - in its variety, its inconsistency, its ebbs and flows - mirrors the vicissitudes of everyday life. And Turner’s work evokes this parallel to stunning effect.

Zoe Apostolides is a journalist based in London.

Turner and the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum until 21 April 2014.

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