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  • Writer's pictureNeil Datson

Turner, Thackeray and the Guardians of morality

The Slave Ship. J M W Turner.

Readers who have seen Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner may recall a scene in which the artist meets an old sea-dog who is haunted by his remembrance of African slaves, many of them still alive, being thrown overboard from the ship Zong. The sailor’s account inspires him to paint one of his most celebrated works: The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon [sic] coming on. That painting was the first of Turner’s major works to find its way to the United States, where it was purchased at auction by Alice Hooper in 1876. Soon afterwards it was displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it hangs to the present day.


There is more than one reason for its fame. Few Turners have permanently escaped this country. Its reception in America, originally in New York in 1872, was mixed. It could, however, be said to have found a spiritual home in Boston where the Abolitionist cause was much stronger and more deeply entrenched than New York. The Hooper family were among its leading lights. Slavery was still a live issue in the 1870s. The United States was only just beginning to repair itself from the horrors of the Civil War. Its bitterness ran deep through the body politic.


It will surely be of no surprise to anybody that the true story of how The Slave Ship came to be painted was nothing like that proposed by Leigh’s film. It was shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1840 and subsequently purchased for John Ruskin by his father. While it was – at least very loosely – a depiction of the Zong massacre, that event happened in 1781. The sailor would have had to have been very old by the 1830s, and Turner, many of whose greatest pictures referenced current affairs, must have learned of it many years earlier as the Zong case was well known in the 1780s. It was an attempted insurance fraud, which came before the Court of the King’s Bench in March 1783 and was subsequently detailed in anti-slave trade leaflets which were widely circulated, especially after the foundation of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. No matter. Anybody who expects historical accuracy from the cinema is being greedy; it is not its job to get in the way of a good story with mere facts.


The painting was not well received in 1840. In his review of the exhibition. The Times’s critic wrote dismissively of four of Turner’s paintings, but his comments about The Slave Ship were the most forthright:


‘It is irksome to find fault with so admirable an artist as Mr Turner has been, but it is impossible to look at this picture without mingled feelings of pity and contempt. Such a mass of heterogenous atoms were never brought together to complete a whole before. Amidst a regiment of fish and fowl of all shapes, colours, sizes and proportions, is seen the leg of a negro, which is about to afford a nibble to a John Dory, a pair of soles and a shoal of white bait.’[1]


W M Thackeray, writing in Fraser’s Magazine as Michel Angelo Titmarsh, was equally dismissive but more expansive and more entertaining:


‘Is the picture sublime or ridiculous? Indeed I don’t know which. Rocks of gamboge are marked down upon the canvass; flakes of white laid on with a trowel; bladders of vermilion madly spirited here and there. Yonder is the slaver rocking in the midst of a flashing foam of white-lead. The sun glares down on a horrible sea of emerald and purple, into which chocolate-coloured slaves are plunged, and chains will not sink; and round these are floundering such a race of fishes as never was seen since the sæculum Pyrrhæ; gasping dolphins redder than the reddest herrings; horrid spreading polypi, like huge, slimy, poached eggs, . . . Ye gods, what a “middle passage!” How Mr Fowell Buxton must shudder! What would they say to this in Exeter Hall? If Wilberforce’s statue downstairs were to be confronted with this picture, the stony old gentleman would spring off his chair, and fly away in terror!’ [Original italics.][2]


Thackeray drew in Mr Fowell Buxton and Exeter Hall as cross-references to current events. Thomas Fowell Buxton was a prominent public figure. He dedicated his life to campaigning on a wide range of social issues; he was the first chairman of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which became ‘Royal’ in 1840. He first became an MP in 1818 and succeeded Wilberforce as the most prominent champion of the anti-slavery movement in parliament. While the act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire is popularly associated with Wilberforce’s name, Fowell Buxton is little remembered today. That is a pity as the act of 1833 which abolished slavery in the empire – after five years notice, the last slaves being freed in 1838 – was largely his achievement. Thackeray’s heavily larded reference to Exeter Hall refers to the first meeting of the World Anti-Slavery Convention, also held in the summer of 1840.


Having ridiculed Fowell Buxton and his fellow campaigners, and possibly wanting to redeem himself in the estimation of what was, at the time, increasingly fashionable opinion, Thackeray immediately moved on to praise a painting by François-Auguste Biard, Bartering for Slaves on the Guinea Coast:


‘God bless you Monsieur Biard, for painting it! It stirs the heart more than a hundred thousand tracts, reports, or sermons: it must convert every man who has seen it. You British government, who have given twenty millions towards the good end of freeing this hapless people, give yet a couple of thousand more to the French painter, and don’t let his work go out of the country, now that it is here. Let it hang along with the Hogarths in the National Gallery; it is as good as the best of them.’[3]


Biard’s painting did not go to the National Gallery but it was purchased by a subscription raised from the convention’s attendees, and was hung in Exeter Hall while their first meeting lasted. It is now to be seen in the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull as The Slave Trade.


The Slave Trade. François-Auguste Biard.

Throughout history tastes in art – both popular and elite – have always changed and doubtless always will. There are probably few who would agree with Thackeray’s assessment of the two paintings’ relative merits today. As I can make no claims to be an educated connoisseur but ‘know what I like’ I won’t join others in criticising him for his lack of artistic taste, but will add that while the sea in Turner’s painting, replete as it is with an improbable cast of monsters, has never been seen in nature neither has the kind of tableau depicted in Bartering for Slaves on the Guinea Coast been seen in the history of human commerce. It is altogether far too crowded, with too many figures standing, sitting, lying or even lounging too close together for any one man to do his job properly. I’ve never wielded a branding iron, but I’m sure I’d need a great deal more space to brand a woman than the sailor in the hooped shirt near the centre of the melee. It should also be noted that Thackeray greatly admired The Fighting Temeraire when it was exhibited in 1839, but we surely cannot accept that even once in his life he saw the sun set in the East. In the field of art criticism just what liberties the artist has taken with reality in what cause is of the first importance.


Of the two appraisals, which was the more indicative of Thackeray’s own attitude to the Abolitionist cause? Already in his late twenties by 1840, Thackeray had only recently taken to writing in order to support his wife and children, having dissipated a substantial inheritance at the gaming tables of European watering places and leading a generally rackety life. He certainly appears to have had greater fun in penning his comments on The Slave Ship, which may not prove where he stood on slavery as such. There can be no doubt of his opinions on broader race issues. They come through very clearly in Vanity Fair. Aptly subtitled ‘A Novel without a Hero’ the only ‘good’ men in it are Amelia Sedley’s father, who fades out somewhat tragically having been ruined in business, and the ridiculous William Dobbin, whose patient and virtuous devotion to Amelia doesn’t convince. There is, however, a large cast of less than attractive figures, two of the most important being George Osborne and his father John. The son is a vain and selfish prig, but he is a better sort of man than his money-grubbing father, who more or less demands that George breaks his engagement with Amelia and makes a play for the hand of Rhoda Swartz, a West Indian heiress.


Unfortunately Miss Swartz’s immense wealth is close to being her only virtue. She is stupid, talentless and vulgar, and – it is strongly implied – physically unalluring. At the conclusion of the critical chapter 21, A Quarrel about an Heiress, the son defies the father:


‘“Marry that mulatto woman?” George said, pulling up his shirt-collars. “I don’t like the colour, sir. Ask the black that sweeps opposite Fleet Market, sir. I’m not going to marry a Hottentot Venus.”’ [Original italics.][4]


Those are the last words that pass between the two in the whole novel. George marries Amelia, his childhood sweetheart, and his vengeful parent cuts him off with scarcely a penny.


While both of the Osbornes are flawed characters there can be no doubt which of them Thackeray sympathises with in A Quarrel about an Heiress. The novelist’s own views of any ‘race issue’ are there is plain sight. They can be read throughout Vanity Fair, in many lesser instances.


As mentioned Thackeray lived a somewhat dissolute life before settling to a writing career. After the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 he, like many others who lived at the time, was troubled that English society was becoming increasingly censorious. In 1820 a politician would probably have felt relaxed about being seen in public with his mistress, twenty or thirty years later he would be more cautious. We have witnessed a similar phenomenon in recent decades. Through the second half of the twentieth century opinions on race issues that might – in the broadest sense – have aligned with Thackeray’s were slowly but surely dying out of English opinion and public discourse. Today, they – or at least their public expression – are as good as illegal. Whether that has influenced popular thinking cannot be known; my suspicion is that it has encouraged, rather than suppressed, racial animosity. Public discourse certainly hasn’t become better or more informative, simply more constrained.


At the same time as Thackeray and his contemporaries were becoming conscious of changing social mores literature was being censored. The first edition of Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare – actually the work of his sister, Henrietta – was published in 1807. It met with little success but nevertheless an enlarged edition followed in 1818. In the early 1820s it was championed by the Edinburgh Review, after which it became increasingly popular. By the middle of the century The Family Shakespeare was selling well and there were a number of similar, well-intentioned, expurgated editions of Shakespeare available. Other writers, including the novelists Fielding and Smollett were given the same treatment. Bowdlerised literature went out of fashion in the first half of the twentieth century but it re-emerged in the second half when sundry authors, including Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Mark Twain either had their books suppressed altogether or re-written so as not to offend current sensibilities. I doubt that anybody has yet published an expurgated edition of Vanity Fair, although given the recent enthusiasm for purifying written material that is not impossible.


It has certainly been done for the purposes of radio dramatization. Some years ago I used to be an avid listener to BBC Radio 4. (In Our Time excepted, I have little taste for it now.) I have an abiding memory of a dramatization of Vanity Fair, probably about the turn of the century. It seemed dull and lifeless, and after hearing an early episode in which George’s clash with his father was covered, and so bowdlerised as to render it incomprehensible, I gave up on it altogether. How, and in what way, the drama’s editor thought that he or she had improved on Thackeray’s original I could not, and cannot, imagine. I also pondered about the motivation. Why disguise Thackeray’s clearly expressed views on human skin colour, and make them fit modern notions of what is acceptable? He died in 1863. It surely cannot damage the status of an early Victorian novelist to reveal that he was a man of his time, not ours? The most likely reason was that whoever was responsible wanted to recruit Thackeray, to turn him into ‘politically correct man’, effectively to perpetrate a literary fraud not wholly unakin to palaeontology’s Piltdown Man. One cannot easily imagine a BBC editor doing the same for Rudyard Kipling. One suspects that – if anything – any attempt to disguise his opinions would go in the opposite direction. That too would be fraud, of course.


J M W Turner is another who has sometimes been recruited – and not only by Leigh – to become a champion of modern sensibilities, to take him out of his age and put him into our own. An explanation of why The Slave Ship came to be painted in 1840 rather than forty years earlier by which time – as a young and aspiring artist – he would certainly have learned of the Zong massacre, is as good a place to start as any in investigating his true views about slavery and the slave trade.


After the act of 1833 was passed slavery – as an issue of public interest and debate – faded into the background, but the emancipation of the slaves in 1838 brought it to the fore again. Many were fearful that British commercial interests would lose out to those of other nations which hadn’t abandoned the practice. The Royal Navy was supposed to be policing the Atlantic trade. Had it got the legal powers that were needed, and were its efforts all that they might be? What of slavery in Africa itself? While the British might no longer be buying African slaves from Africans, and were trying to encourage or bully other nations into following their example, slavery itself was practised across almost the whole continent, and through Asia too. There were reasons aplenty for what had started out as a largely domestic campaign to spread its wings, and transform itself into an international cause. That was the purpose of the first World Anti-Slavery Convention. For men and women who thought like Fowell Buxton the movement’s work was only just beginning. Turner, as one who kept abreast of current affairs, and who made a good living from his use of the brush, was as aware as any man of slavery’s reemergent public profile.


That is not to suggest that he was insincere. There is good reason to believe that he was rather more exercised about slavery than Thackeray; however, we should not go too far and imagine that he was ever an ardent anti-slavery campaigner. For one thing he showed no qualms about working for patrons whose fortunes depended on slavery, as well as for Abolitionists. For another, in 1805, when the agitation which brought about the 1807 act was at its height, he invested in a slave enterprise in Jamaica.


His investment was in the Dry Sugar Work cattle pen, an estate of some 1500 acres in St Catherine’s parish, in the south of the island and a little to the west of Kingston. Jamaica, having been a Spanish possession before it was taken by the English during Cromwell’s Protectorate, had a turbulent political history. Even in the time of Spanish rule the mountains in the north-east of the island were a haven for communities of escaped slaves, and they became more numerous as the Spanish withdrew and the English took control. Initially English ‘government’ of the island was in the hands of freebooters. For its first few years piracy was the main economic activity. After English possession was recognised by Spain in the Treaty of Madrid of 1670 something more closely resembling law and order was slowly established and economic development, principally in the form of sugar cane production, followed. In their turn the sugar plantations encouraged the development of cattle pens, whose function was more to supply them with draught animals than with meat. Like the plantations themselves they depended on slave labour. That would have been abundantly clear to Turner who committed himself to purchasing a £100 share on 11 April 1905, when he attended a meeting at the Thatched House Tavern, St James’s Street. His name appears in the list of subscribers, taken down at the time. By then the prospectus had been printed and circulated. The promoters sought to raise fresh capital by selling 200 £100 tontines, shares that were to pay a fixed annual dividend for the life of the purchaser and possibly that of a nominated heir. The money was needed to re-establish the indebted Dry Sugar Work pen as a going concern. After clearing a mortgage of £2,530 it was to be used for several immediate purposes, the greatest single need being to purchase a labour force:


‘. . . to be laid out in the purchase of Negroes. . . . the Number of Negroes thereby purchased, will of themselves form a full Security for the Money, independent of the present and the daily increasing Value of the Estate. Negroes always greatly increase in Value, after they have been some time in the Island, so as to double the Amount of their first Price, after allowing any casual loss by Death.’[5]


Altogether, the cost of the slaves may well have been more than £7,000. The tontines were to pay an annual dividend of £15, so a successful investor would realise a profit after seven years and after that enjoy a generous income. No doubt their purchasers, including Turner, appreciated the risks. Britain was at war with France and the Abolitionist movement was growing in strength. Investment in the British West Indian islands was not for the faint hearted. But the dangers accepted, 15% was a handsome return. In the event the business failed. Even before the end of the year there were indications that it was floundering and in September 1808 it was in the hands of a receiver. Unwinding it took many years. It was finally settled in the Court of Chancery in 1830. Shades of Bleak House.


What does this tell us about Turner’s art? Absolutely nothing of any value or interest, in my opinion. It is likely that in the course of his adult life his opinions about slavery modified, and likely that Thackeray’s did too. Given the broad trends of public opinion in the first half of the nineteenth century both men probably felt more strongly about it as they grew older. Yet we can’t understand the past if we aren’t prepared to study it closely, and try to learn what men and women believed, rather than what we would have had them believe. The anti-slavery movement was made up of many, diverse, people, with individual points of view. Adam Smith, for example, objected to slavery on the grounds that it was, per se, economically inefficient. Some of those who wanted to stop the trade argued that once planters were prevented from importing slaves they would improve their slaves’ living and working conditions. They would be given larger plots on which to grow vegetables, and pregnant and nursing mothers would be allowed more free time. The advantages weren’t only humanitarian. The final object of such reforms would be to increase their numbers. In effect, breeding slaves for profit could become an attractive business prospect. In 1787 Robert Boucher Nickolls, the Dean of Middleham and an anti-slave trade campaigner, wrote:


‘To the planter, the prohibition of the slave-trade would be immediately beneficial, and the benefit would be progressive with time, as it would immediately raise the value of his negroes, whose numbers also would be increased by a melioration of the system of slavery:’[6]


It is hard to read such reasoning without a shudder of horror today. It does not fit in with a modern view of the campaign, which is that there were good people who opposed the trade and bad people who championed it, and that never the twain could meet. The great mass of men, including those in public life such as Turner and Thackeray, weren’t ideologically committed, although they might sympathise with one side or the other. Although there are no exact parallels – there never are exact parallels – think of any major issue about which there is public disagreement today: EU membership, Net Zero, immigration. Firstly, most people are not deeply engaged, even if those that are believe that everybody should be. Anybody who is will have got to his or her position for or against, yes or no, through a combination of thoughts and ideas. The kind of argument that one side or the other should be dismissed as ignorant and unthinking – and that everybody who supports it can be lumped together – is all too commonly aired: by unthinking polemicists. It is plainly wrong. Ultimately it points to nothing so clearly as their own intellectual idleness.


Such a narrow-minded refusal to engage and learn certainly doesn’t help when it is applied to today’s issues. Tastes will vary but for me, at least, there is something doubly egregious about long dead artists, such as Turner and Thackeray, being conscripted by today’s self-appointed morality police to fight their culture wars. They would do far better to learn history than seek to correct it.

[1] ‘Exhibition of the Royal Academy’. The Times, 6 May 1840.

[2] Fraser’s Magazine, June 1840, p 731.

[3] Ibid, p 731.

[4] William Makepeace Thackeray. Vanity Fair, chapter 21.

[5] Proposals for raising by tontine the sum of £20,000 to be laid out in the cultivation of an extensive and lucrative estate in Jamaica. Senate House Library, University of London. Sam Smiles. ‘Turner and the slave trade: Speculation and Representation, 1805-40’. The British Art Journal, vol 8, no 3 (Winter 2007/8), p 48.

[6] Robert Boucher Nickolls, ‘Letter to the Treasurer of the Society instituted for the purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, 1787. John R Oldfield (ed). The British Transatlantic Slave Trade, vol 3, the Abolitionist Struggle, opponents of the Slave Trade, p 17.


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