BBC migrant deaths film Vs Turner’s ‘sermon’ on canvas

Rashmee Roshan Lall
2 min readJun 18, 2024

The second part of why the new BBC TV film on migrant deaths in Greece brings back to mind the 1840 Turner painting on slaves. Click here for part one

Turner had put up the Slave Ship painting with the following excerpt from his incomplete long poem Fallacies of Hope:

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying — ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”

Three years later, John Ruskin, a leading art critic and thinker of the Victorian era, critiqued the painting, saying it showed “the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted, and, if so, the noblest certainly ever painted by man”.

But the painting drew appalled commentary in the 20th century, with critics decrying Turner’s perpetuation of “imagery of black powerlessness and suffering” and excoriating Ruskin’s praise of it. In 1995, Guyanese-born poet and academic David Dabydeen wrote a long narrative poem Turner, subjecting the painting and Ruskin’s critique to scathing scrutiny.

Setting out to restore the form and presence of the drowned slaves, Mr Dabydeen said in his preface that Ruskin’s “detailed account of the composition of the painting” focussed on “the genius with which Turner illuminated sea and sky in an intense and lurid splendour of colours”. He added: “Its subject, the shackling and drowning of Africans, was relegated to a brief footnote…that reads like an afterthought, something tossed overboard”. He also suggested that “the intensity of Turner’s painting is such that I believe the artist in private must have savoured the sadism he publicly denounced”.

It’s an opinion and many say a valid one.

The alternative view is that the Turner painting, like the BBC documentary, drew attention to a pressing social issue (in this case, slavery).

In fact, The Slave Ship painting was later said to represent “a calculatedly sensational image comparable to ‘lurid’ contemporary journalistic accounts of slave atrocities”. Some said it was a “hell and brimstone sermon” and an art historian declared that its power derived from the aesthetics of the sublime, which tries “to shift the concrete horror of the slave system above time and place”.

The new BBC documentary has much the same task to do as Turner’s ‘sermon’ on canvas.

Originally published at https://www.rashmee.com

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university in London