Snow Storm

This is perhaps Turner’s finest seascape, and indeed possibly the greatest depiction of a storm in all art. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in I842. Turner once claimed that in order to paint this scene he had `got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did’. However, possibly he fabricated this story, for it is similar to one told of the marine painter Joseph Vernet, and no ship named the Ariel is known to have sailed from Harwich in the years leading up to I842; perhaps the title of the vessel was intended to allude to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Nor does the picture-title accord fully with what we actually see, for the ship is `going by the lead’, which denotes that a weighted line is being periodically dropped from the bow to gauge the shallowness of the waters so as to prevent the ship from running aground. Yet such a prudent, measured precaution seems to be at odds with the actual predicament of a vessel caught up in a maelstrom, even if we can appreciate why the boat should be firing signal rockets to denote her position offshore.
Yet even if some or all of Turner’s factual claims are false, and there seems to be some disparity between the nautical behavior indicated in the title and what appears to be actually happening to the Ariel, the veracity of Turner’s communication of what it is like to be at the centre of a cataclysmic storm is beyond dispute, with the entire visible universe wheeling in a massive vortex around both the steamer and also the spectator. (And on the steamer, incidentally, we can see that its foremast and funnel are located in the correct positions, which again indicates that Turner had purposefully taken liberties with literal reality in The Fighting Temeraire of three years earlier.)

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