My Favourite painting: John Humphrys

The broadcaster John Humphrys on his choice of a classic Turner picture.

John Humphrys on The Shipwreck by J. M. W. Turner

 It has to be J. M. W. Turner. The problem is, which one? I’ve settled for The Shipwreck purely because it captures the drama so magnificently. But his skies and seas are where his genius shines through for me.

In my dreams, I have a house full of Turners. In the real world, I’ve settled for a couple by Ethel Walker. She’s not Turner (who is?), but she’s wonderful .

John Humphrys is a broadcaster, best known as a presenter (from 1987 until September) of BBC Radio 4’s Today. His memoir, A Day Like Today, was published last month.

John Humphrys

John McEwen on The Shipwreck

There are drawings for the composition in Turner’s “Calais Pier” sketchbook and slighter sketches, probably from actual wrecks, in the “Ship-wreck No. 1” sketchbook respectively, as well as other sketches related in more general terms,’ according to The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner by Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll (1984):‘This was the first of Turner’s oil paintings to be engraved. The prospectus makes it clear that the picture could be seen in Turner’s gallery “until July 1, 1805”.’

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The book also notes that a possible stimulus to Turner’s choice of subject was the highly successful re-publication in 1804, with illustrations by Nicholas Pocock, of William Falconer’s 1762 poem The Shipwreck.

Falconer describes a mighty warship:

Her giant-bulk the dread concussion feels

And quivering with the wound in torrent reels.

So reels, convulsed with agonizing throes,

The bleeding bull beneath the murderer’s blows.

The wreck of the ship forms the horizon to the right of the sail of what might be a rescue lifeboat (the first official vessel of this kind dated from 1790). The Shipwreck is a long poem, but the following early lines are appropriate:

Three with Palemon on their skill depend,

And from the wreck on oars and rafts descend.

Now on the mountain wave on high they ride,

Then downward plunge beneath the involving tide.

Sir John Leicester Bt bought the painting from Turner for £315 in 1806, and exchanged it the following year for The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA), plus 50 guineas. Turner did a good deal, The Falls being a slightly smaller and less appealing picture.