My favourite painting: Gilane Tawadros

Writer and curator Gilane Tawadros chooses the harrowing Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner.

Gilane Tawadros on Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) by J. M. W. Turner

‘When Turner exhibited this painting in New York, critics ignored the subject, preferring to focus on technique and deriding the rough and unruly brushstrokes. But it reflects the artist’s personal engagement with urgent political questions of his time, such as the legacy of slavery, the human cost of war, voting rights, the impact of new technology on workers and the tension between industrial development and the environment.

‘These are still pressing questions now. Turner’s paintings have the power to haunt and move through the sheer power and beauty of the way he applied paint to the surface of the canvas, as much as the urgency and importance of the topics he addressed.’

Writer and curator Gilane Tawadros is chief executive of the Design and Artists Copyright Society and vice-chair of the Stuart Hall foundation

Charlotte Mullins comments on Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner

When Turner was 65 years old, he painted Slave Ship. By 1840, Britain had ceased its involvement in the slave trade — indeed, was working to halt it — but other countries persisted. When the world’s first anti-slavery convention was held in London that year, Turner’s Slave Ship hung nearby, on the wall in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, throughout.

The painting is believed to record a tragic event of 1781, when British slave ship Zong was crossing the Atlantic from Ghana to Jamaica. Many people in the hold were ill, water was running low (so the crew averred) and a storm was approaching. The callous captain decided to throw the sick overboard to enable him to claim compensation when he reached port — insurance would cover slaves lost at sea in a storm, but not those who succumbed to illness on board. All told, more than 130 slaves were pitched into the sea, still alive and still wearing shackles, giving them no chance of survival.

Turner’s painting is a maelstrom of paint. Waves crash over the ship, silhouetted against a setting sun, as the sea churns with the desperate struggles of doomed slaves. Shackled hands clutch the air as birds and fish circle hungrily. It is a tragic painting, full of emotional charge, and it packs a heavy punch today. However, critics at the time focused more on Turner’s expressive use of colour, disliking the ‘marigold sky’ and the ‘horrible sea of emerald and purple’. A young John Ruskin felt quite the opposite and praised it highly. Four years later, his father bought him the painting as a New Year’s present.

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