Drowning Bodies, Pretty Pictures.

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou


In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014) there are three interrelated sequences. The director does not necessarily stress their connection or suggest that there is a causal relationship between them, as the film is structured as a loose series of vignettes. As the movie progresses though, it is clear that they point back to each other.

At Margate, where he rents a room under the name Mr. Mallord, Turner has a drink with Sophia Booth (his future companion) and her husband. The following dialogue takes place:

Turner: Man of the sea?

Mr. Booth: Ship’s carpenter.

Turner: Carpenter? Noble craft. What’s your ply? Whalers, spices, traders?

Mr. Booth: Slavers, for all my sins.

Sophia: He doesn’t like to talk about it though.

Mr. Booth: Africa, Zanzibar, Indies. Those terrible sufferings I did see. Treated like animals they was; worse than.

Turner: The howling sound of sorrow

Mr. Booth: Change my life it did…Brought me back to chapel.

Turner: (with profound disdain) Humans.

Sophia: Humans can be dreadful cruel. I watch them boys down there in the sands whipping that poor donkeys. Mind you. You’re better off being a donkey than them wretched souls in the slave ships.

The episode is short, and the dialogue is sparse. The broken look of the old sailor when recalling his past life and the atrocities committed on board the slave ships, does not need much embellishment. The slow enumeration of places (Africa, Zanzibar, Indies) sounds like an incantation of horror.

There is no more talk about slave ships and slaves, until a young John Ruskin and his father visit Turner at his Queen Anne Street Gallery. Turner shows them his unsold painting from the previous year, the 1840 Slave Ship, that was exhibited at the Royal Academy but reviled by Thackeray (“Sublime or ridiculous”, the painter recalls).

Turner: Typhus epidemic amongst the cargo. Slaves die on board. Not insured. Sling them in the drink. Drown dead. Cash.

Ruskin: I am struck by the column of bright white placed precisely off center, here, applied over the darkened background impasto, contrasting with the scarlet and ochre keys in the upper left corner, which in turn contrasts with the presence of God, revealing to us that hope exists even in the most turbulent and illimitable of deaths…Would it not sit splendidly above the fireplace in the library, father?


J.M.W. Turner, Slave Ship, 1840 (exhibited, Royal Academy), oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

J.M.W. Turner, Slave Ship, 1840 (exhibited, Royal Academy), oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Turner comments on the events that lie at the genesis of the painting, the 1783 drowning of 132 slaves that had become sick with typhus on board an English slave ship traveling from Africa to Jamaica. Apparently, insurance could be collected on drowned slaves, but not for those that died on board from illness, so the sick slaves were thrown in the water to drown. Turner’s grunting, staccato enunciation of the short sentences brings out the full scale of human depravity: “Drown dead. Cash”. Human life equated with money, like a terrible inevitability. Even worse, the loss of human life as a money-making enterprise.

Up to that moment, the realities of slavery, of carrying humans across vast quantities of water as if they were cargo, had remained more or less in the domain of word and action: a sailor remembering, and a painter turning into image a recorded episode. As soon as Ruskin opens his mouth though, there’s suddenly a viewer looking at a picture. An external observer. To Turner’s stark words, meant as an explanation of his painting, Ruskin replies with his aesthetic experience as a viewer. No slaves, no dead bodies floating in the water, no humans flung overboard to drown. There is only a composition where a ‘bright white’ column is ‘placed precisely off center’, there is impasto, and contrasts, and scarlet and ochre. Faced with the ugliness of the fact, Ruskin only chooses to see a beautiful picture. He also offers a counter-interpretation of the episode, where hope and the presence of god prevail, as if to exorcise the ‘most turbulent and illimitable of deaths’. It is the aestheticization of violence that Leigh criticizes here, although he seems to absolve the painter (who represents), and places the burden of responsibility on the viewer-consumer. “Would it not sit splendidly above the fireplace in the library?”, Ruskin asks. This is no longer the picture of a horrible reality, but a beautiful object to be contemplated in the leisure of one’s home. All sense of urgency is lost, and no political action deemed necessary (exceptions to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 were only eliminated in 1843).

There is one final scene in the film, where the Slave Ship is again discussed, although emphasis has been shifted on the relative merits of modern as opposed to older painting (which is presented by Ruskin as a contrast between Claude and Turner himself). The painter has been invited, along with some of his colleagues, to the house of Ruskin’s family. At the entrance, he stands for some seconds in front of his painting, now hanging there, before proceeding to the drawing room.

Ruskin: Take for example your Slave Ship, slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, typhoon coming on, by which I have the good fortune to be greeted every morning on my way into my meagre breakfast. The impact of the foaming brine incarnadine consuming those unfortunate [emphasis] negro slaves never ceases to quicken the beat of my heart. Yet, when I gaze upon a work of Claude I find myself enduring nothing more than a mere collection of precise brushstrokes, which instill in me no sense of awe whatsoever.

Leigh purposefully contrasts the ‘good fortune’ of Ruskin, who is privileged to behold his beautiful picture from the safety of his home, with the fate of the ‘unfortunate negro slaves’. ‘Fortune’ is not a word chosen by accident. Fortune means that what happens, to us as well as to other people, is beyond our control and, ultimately, beyond our responsibility. It is due to Ruskin’s fortune that he is able to contemplate the painting, and to the slaves’ lack of fortune that they drowned in the sea. The painting’s function (as understood by Ruskin, and criticized by Leigh) is simply to ‘quicken the beat’ of the viewer’s heart and to ‘instill in him a sense of awe’, not awaken his consciousness. As a culmination, the linking of tragedy to domestic rituals (“on my way into my meagre breakfast”) completes its withdrawal, its separation from the public sphere, from the political, from the domain of action and words.

* * *

Can pictures awaken consciousness? Can looking at them accomplish anything at all? Is not looking synonymous to not knowing? The photographs of the drowned kids washed out in some unnamed shore that have circulated widely on social media make this an urgent question. People have looked at them, and shared them with other people who are also going to look at them. When the first shock has passed (as it is wont to do), what will have changed? Definitely not the reality itself, but what about beliefs and ideas about refugees and immigrants? Those entrenched in their positions (either for or against, to put it simplistically) likely won’t budge – and are there people so blissfully ignorant that upon being confronted with images such as these will experience a shift significant enough to matter? This is not to say that reporting and journalism should not fulfill their duty of disseminating information and combatting prejudice.

Looking at pictures as part of our everyday routine (our meagre breakfast) may desensitize us to tragedy. While the aestheticization of yesterday’s photographs seems improbable (now or in the near future), the danger lurks that familiarity will render them meaningless, strip them of the horror they embody. They might just become signs of a world where ‘fortune’ again prevails: the fortune of the one who is looking, and the lack of fortune of the one who drowns. None of the structures that have permitted the fortunate and the unfortunate to occupy their respective places in the world are questioned in the process. Looking leaves the viewer’s value system intact. Perhaps it is time to avert our gaze, stop looking and do something.


* Originally conceived as part of an article on Mr. Turner, but never published, this text was re-written and amended accordingly after recent events.

** For a defense of looking, read: “The Drowned and the Sacred: To See the Unspeakable“, by Nicholas Mirzoeff.