'The Wreck Buoy' by JMW Turner
The work has its origins from around 1807, but was repainted whilst in the possession of Mr. H.A.J. Munro, a patron of Turner, in 1849. This reworking was later described by the writer Walter Thornbury as an:
“earlier picture on which Turner spent six laborious days quite at the end of his life much to Mr. Munro’s horror but it came out gloriously with a whitened misty sky and a double rainbow”
'The Wreck Buoy' was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, with the Art Journal stating that it was “the best of Turner’s late productions”.
Many paintings by Turner show nautical disasters and stormy scenes. 'The Wreck Buoy' is an illustration of Turners love of the sea, and also his acknowledgement of the power of the ocean as well. He was 74 years old when he reworked the painting, and for me it can be viewed as possibly a summation of his views on life itself.
In the painting, the eye is drawn initially to the rainbow, then to the ships bathed in the light. The eye is then led down towards
The light, the sailors and the wreck buoy
the sailors in a large rowing boat and finally down to the two buoy’s themselves.
These are warnings for ships to be on the look out for hidden dangers below the surface of the water. Have the sailors in the rowing boats been ship-wrecked? Have they ignored the warnings?
Most cultures see a rainbow as a symbol of hope. A rainbow and light would signify a new beginning, or hope for the future. But in 'The Wreck Buoy', Turner makes us see the light and the rainbow first, and then leads us towards the dark and stormy areas of possible disaster. Quite pessimistic when you think about it really!
In 1848, one year before he re-worked the painting, revolution had spread across Europe and I wonder whether Turner is commenting on mankind’s hopes for the future. Is he using the rainbow as a symbol of false hope maybe?
Whatever the meaning, in 1856 John Ruskin wrote that:
“…. the last oil picture which he painted, before his noble hand forgot its cunning, was the Wreck-buoy”
'The Wreck Buoy' was purchased by George Holt in 1888 for £1837. His daughter Emma bequeathed it (plus around 150 other paintings) and Sudley House to the people of Liverpool on her death in 1944.
See if you can spot the painting in this video that looks behind the scenes of the 'Mr Turner' film:
Can't wait for 'The Wreck Buoy' to return? Come and see other works by Turner that are on display: