This is a book about an artist, a painting, and a passionate humanitarian movement that eventually swept the world. It works on two levels: it tells of an artist's struggle with his own moral convictions and the collective conscience of two great nations deeply involved in the slave trade, Britain and America. It is a narrative that unfolds against the squalor of late eighteenth-century London and the elegance of the Royal Academy of Arts, and then reaches to the cramped, "floating dungeons" of slave ships and the industrious, sultry plantations of Jamaica. [“Introduction,” 6]
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s these lines from his “Introduction” demonstrate, Stephen J. May writes a far more lively, interesting prose than one finds in most scholarly studies that too often weigh themselves down with jargon and stilted prose. With the exception of a few clunkers and an unfortunate habit of claiming to know what the people he discusses were thinking, he writes very well and provides a great deal of information, most of it relevant, in a small compass. Drawing upon recent scholarship, he gives us useful overview of Turner's career, painting methods, friendships, patrons, and clandestine sexual relationships. We learn about Turner's various modes of dress, both as himself and in disguise and Admiral Booth. We also receive useful introductions to the slave trade, the anti-slavery movement, its heroic leaders, and Turner's personal relationship with one of them. May provides an especially useful discussion of Zong affair, which, more than any other, provided the inspiration for The Slave Ship, and he also tells the story of the painting's reception. The book closes with the interesting story how it came to America in large part through the well-known efforts of Charles Eliot Norton, the first professor of Art History in the United States, with valuable detours into the founding of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painting's first American owner, his illness, and forced sale to a Boston woman whose heirs eventually left it to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it now resides.

One of the book's main points of departure is Turner's investment in a Jamaican sugar plantation:

In his late twenties he was besieged by commissions and courted by several influential patrons. He was wealthy beyond his years and seduced by many worldly distractions. He quite naturally wanted to avoid the fate of his parents by investing his money wisely. One of these investments in a Jamaican sugar plantation worked by slaves was a shrewd business move, a frivolous youthful oversight, or an enormous moral blunder, depend- ing on how one views it. It was an investment that would trouble him all his life, eventually reaching into the very depths of his soul, and inevitably finding its way into his greatest painting — The Slave Ship. . . . As the years passed, he felt a shared guilt about his own role and England's role in condoning and perpetuating slavery's malevolent legacy. [24, 72]

May here advances an interesting, perhaps inevitable, interpretation of the connection between Turner's investment and his famous anti-slavery (or anti-slave-trade) painting, but we encounter an attractive surmise as absolute fact. May needs some proof.

Much of this useful little book reads like the words of one's garrulous old uncle who has many good stories to tell, tells them very well in a lively and engaging manner, but occasionally enjoys spinning a yarn so much that he goes off on tangents just because he finds them interesting whether or not they have much relevance to the subject immediately at hand. May tells us how old a student at the RA had to be to draw nude women in lifeclass (20 years old), the condition of Buckingham Palace of Victoria's accession, and the life history of one Alice Mason Hooper, who was not the “the lady from Boston” (Alice Stirgus Hooper) who purchased the The Slave Ship but someone whose name just happens to sound like hers.

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J. M. W. Turner, Slave Ship. [Full title: Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying -- Typho[on]n Coming On. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

There is ample precedent for a book focusing on a single painting, particularly a single work of Turner's. Almost forty years ago John Gage published Turner: “Rain, Steam and Speed” in Viking's Art in Context series edited by John Fleming and Hugh Honour, and more recently John A. Walker produced "Work": Ford Madox Brown's Painting and Victorian Life (2006). Both of these works have many more images than we find in May's Voyage of the Slave Ship, which has five very good, if rather small color plates; most of the remainder of the images are black-and-white portraits, almost all of which come from something called History Picks. These include images of King William IV and Queen Victoria, neither of whom are particularly relevant to the argument at hand, and leaders of the anti-slavery movement like William Wilberforce, who are central to this book. Unfortunately, May does not include a large number of images that his discussion demands, such as Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, to which he devotes several pages, and, more important, the anti-slavery painting of Auguste Baird, which he contrasts at length to Turner's Slave Ship. It is particularly bizarre that he includes no reproduction of works central to his argument, such George Morland's The Execrable Human Traffic, the Wedgwood Am I not a Man and a Brother?, and the famous diagram of the the slave-ship Brooks by William Elford and others. Given the small size of the plates, we also need some details of The Slave Ship to follow his discussion.

On the whole, May does a fairly good job explaining both the relation between Ruskin and Turner and some of the great critic's writings. Unfortunately, he wanders off into nonsense about Ruskin's unfortunate marriage, a matter quite irrelevant to The Slave Ship and tells us that “Something about Effie's body offended Ruskin — no one is sure what” (140). (Robert Brownell's recent Marriage of Inconvenience, which quotes Ruskin's letters to his young wife telling her how he longs to undress her again, points out that, according to Effie's own testimony, they slept naked in each other's arms.)

At times May's reasoning seems so odd that it threatens to undercut this knowledgable author's credibility, as when he writes, “Like his speech, Turner's written language was often erratic and unpredictable. Because his family relations were few, he often corresponded with art dealers, artists and various businessmen. He frequently chose the wrong word or used it in an inappropriate context” (85). I'm afraid I don't see connection among his “family relations,” writing letters to “art dealers, artists and various businessmen,” and Turner's prose. Similarly, a page later May doesn't seem to have reread his own prose when in one sentence he claims that Turner “seemed oblivious to the wave of modern poets just coming into popularity: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and later Byron, Keats and Shelley," and in the immediately following sentence tells us, “he identified with Byron's brooding romantic hero, Childe Harold, and with the pessimistic Byronic hero in general. When Byron in his poem 'The Prisoner of Chillon' sighed: 'Fettered, or fetterless to be/I learned to love despair,' Turner was right there to hold the chains“ (86). Every writer produces similar clunkers from which copy editors save us, but May does not seem to have had the benefit of one — how else to explain the annoying and often unhelpful endnotes characterized by a flood of Ibids when The University of Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, and a host of publishers have made in-text citations the rule for simple bibliographical information. May's problems with citation carry over to citing web resources. It's very nice that he cites my work in the Victorian Web a few times, but he doesn't provide the most rudimentary information, such as the URL or even the title of essay or book chapter cited.

Nontheless, the comparatively minor matters mentioned in the previous paragraph are those for whom the publisher more than the author is at fault, and at any rate they do not markedly detract from an informative and usually reliable book.

Related Material

Bibliography

Brownell, Robert. Marriage of Inconvenience: John Ruskin, Effie Gray, John Everett Millais and the surprising truth about the most notorious marriage of the nineteenth century. London: Pallas Athene, 2013.

Gage, John. Turner: “Rain, Steam and Speed”. New York: Viking, 1972.

May, Stephen J. Voyage of the Slave Ship: J. M. W. Turner's Masterpiece in Historical Context. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7989-4. Pp. viii + 206.


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Last modified 1 June 2014