Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840
The Clark Museum of Art Williamstown, MA
This complex and storied painting of a steamship being warned of running aground during a storm is one of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s many accounts of humans contending with nature. His life (1775-1851) ran the length of the Industrial Revolution and he saw the grand sailing warships of his youth being towed to the wrecking yards by the coal powered tugboats of his old age. Turner was feverishly prolific, with over 2000 paintings (watercolor and oils) and nearly 20,000 works on paper. He traveled widely through Europe, filling voluminous sketchbooks with notes on color, optics and topography. He had few friends and lived with his father, who was his studio assistant, for 30 years. Turner did not marry, though he fathered two children with his housekeeper, Sarah Danby.
This painting, Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water was completed in 1840 and is in the permanent collection of the Clark Museum of Art in Williamstown, MA. There were often reports of cargo ships subject to terrible storms. In place of lighthouses, blue rockets and flares were sent up to let captains know that danger was near. This painting may have been a composite of field sketches, newspaper reports and Turner’s wonderful visual memory. In the years since Turner’s death, this painting has been in many hands and subject to additions, overpaintings and restorations. Because of this, some of the specifics of the narrative can only be speculated about.
Is it a line of rocks in the middle far left or a train of looters dragging a net of cargo that washed ashore? This was a common practice in England.
Why does the figure with the spyglass point it toward the empty sea when the foundering ship is in the middle?
This earlier version of the painting suggests that there was a second vessel, on the right near the dark plume of smoke.
Much of this confusion was a result of Turner’s temperament. He seemed to value the expression of the moment more than the physical integrity of his pictures. He often used unstable mediums and pigments that were not lightfast. His response to Mr. Winsor’s (of Winsor and Newtons Paints) cautioning him about the pigments he was using was a curt “Mind your own business!” (1) Ironically, this was precisely Mr. Winsor’s business!
Patrons would return to Turner’s studio with watercolors, whose red sunsets had begun to cool to grey. No refunds, no repaints. Megilp, a popular, though unreliable medium prized for it’s warm golden glazes, would also darken and blister over time. This was exacerbated when conservators relined the linen support of the painting using a heating element, causing the resin and walnut oil mixture to run and pool below the figures on the beach. Over several generations, restorers added to and removed from the painting, refreshing fading color and stabilizing flaking paint. In 2002, the attempt was made to remove all overpainting to restore the painting to it’s original state. It could be that the second ship was removed at that time, though it seems to have been a part of Turner’s own composition.
The more time I spent with Turner and his work, the more dispirited I became. I didn’t like to think of so many hands on this picture, adding, removing, so that it was no longer a work of a unified vision, nor was it as relational and anonymous as nature. Perhaps it was hard to reconcile Turner’s love of the elements (even more apparent in the simple and spontaneous watercolors) and his seeming disdain for the people that he shared these works with and for the durability of the works themselves.
I journal about these artworks to understand them from different perspectives. My experience is that we have many aspects within us that have different dispositions and insights. When I have questions about Art, I journal to Orange Man/Dust Boy, an internal aspect that is a primordial image maker. He always knows more about art than I do.
J: Orange Man/Dust Boy, why is it painful and frustrating to look at this picture and learn about it’s circumstances?
OM/DB: It is the inappropriate preservation of it. This man knew that craft and endurance were real, that they were acts of care and conditions for sharing with humanity.
J: Should it have been allowed to flake off the canvas?
OM/DB: His pictures, yes, because he wanted them to be as nature, but he was a thief. He sold false gold to his fellows and left them to retouch and recast it until it was as a cage with no bird. The generosity of heart was not there so he did not care for his works or for those that paid for them.
J: I do feel a selfishness in him and a disdain for people.
OM/DB: He loved Nature and was drawn to join it, but he was too infected by the conditions of his day, the desire for recognition from the people he disliked. This caused him to try and steal from Nature.
J: Is this too harsh, Orange Man/Dust Boy?
OM/DB: No. He created works, like his children, and he did not care for the well being of them.
J: His mother was put into an insane asylum.
OM/DB: Yes, and he suppressed his own maternal intelligence and became irresponsible.
J: These paintings were then subject to deterioration and exposed to many hands to stabilize and restore them.
OM/DB: Restore what? This is where you are not honest Jason. Restore the conditions of neglect that contorted his innocent love of Nature? He made choices to use his gifts and access to elemental Nature to pad his self importance. So let these pictures fall back to Nature! Show them in their flaking and sagging state. Let Nature participate at last. People are so stupid sometimes. Do you imagine that the conditions that moved Turner are not available at all times? Do you think that he is asking us to honor Nature or to honor him?
J: There is something beautiful he has done, in this one and in some of the watercolors. He could see simply, arrangements and shapes and colors. He moved away from painting things and began to paint conditions. They have more life because of that.
OM/DB: Yes, but I am not as pessimistic about Art as you are. I know what it is.
J: What is it?
OM/DB: An invitation to expanded life. These pictures, for all of their effects, are positioned as substitutes for life. Let them rejoin life and not block people’s possibility of renewed vision.
J: It is very difficult to make a painting that helps us see newly without it itself becoming the new thing.
OM/DB: That is well said. That would require wanting to join life ourselves while including the well being of all others in our aspiration. Turner thought he could align himself with elemental Nature while foregoing his responsibilities as a human in community.
J: I hear you, but these are very beautiful.
OM/DB: He was often close. But he didn’t go far enough. When you fully choose Art you also at the same time choose your fellow man.
(1) Colour, Travels Through the Paintbox, Victoria Finlay, p. 168