“Hurrah for the whaler Erebus! Another fish!” That’s the cry that comes from a crowd of ecstatic men in boats on a mirror-still sea, captured in Turner’s 1846 masterpiece that takes its title from their exclamation. You look for the fish and see the huge grey head of a whale suspended against yellow light, under the partly furled sails of a ghostly vessel. But something is wrong. The hysterical celebration is desperate. The water is becalmed, the air frozen and dead. These whalers are trapped in pack ice, still slaughtering their prey when they may never escape their remote prison.
Dark Waters is an exhibition of nautical ghost stories, a collection of sinister shanties and tales told by old salts in dockside pubs. Turner owned such a pub: it’s still going, as Turner’s Old Star in the Wapping area of London. Maybe that’s where he met whaling veterans and heard their icy adventures. In this show, that sense of a journey into Davy Jones’s Locker is heightened by an atmospheric soundscape, composed by Lamin Fofana whose splashes and moans create a very modern elegy for those in peril on the sea. I don’t generally think paintings need a soundtrack – but this one puts you in the right, sombre mood.
A terrible golden emptiness spreads out in the middle of the canvas of the Erebus and its catch, as if gradually irradiating and dissolving the crew, the human blubber. When it was first exhibited in 1846, the actual HMS Erebus was missing in the Arctic, where it had been abandoned by the John Franklin expedition before they all died. Turner plays on fears for the lost explorers – or perhaps that deathly northern sky is a spooky emanation from Franklin’s fated crew, like the messages that reached Victorian mediums.
His 1845 painting Whalers is a more grimly realistic record of the trade, a juxtaposition of human courage and industrial stench: while harpooners bravely pose on the prows of small boats to spear a whale already spewing bloodstained pink water from its blowhole, grey smoke from a ship getting ready to boil down the creature mixes with the white sea mist.
Yet in the bottom corner, this apparent reality gives way to sheer surrealism. Turner has attacked the blue and white surface of his painted sea with a knife, scratching sgraffito marks in the waves – like a bored seaman practising scrimshaw. Even weirder, a spiky, thorned white stalk emerges from the water, like an Arctic rose stem. This deathly relic surely suggests a whale’s spine, skeletal debris left by whalers in the ice.
Another ghost here is Turner’s absent painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On, which Boston Museum of Fine Arts no longer lends out. One reason you can’t escape its long bloody shadow is that, in this painting of a lurid sea under a blood-tinged sky, Turner depicted the atrocity committed by the Zong, a slaving ship owned by a consortium of Liverpool merchants. Short of drinking water, the crew murdered more than 130 captive Africans. The Victorian critic John Ruskin shuddered at Turner’s “guilty ship” – and Liverpool has a part in that guilt.
Rightly, Tate Liverpool sees Turner’s ocean terrors through the lens of his refusal to forget the crimes of the slave trade – and a soundwork by Fofana remembers the Zong. As you contemplate some of Turner’s most sinister seas, you hear the stirring Rastafari hymn Rivers of Babylon. Written and first recorded by the Melodians, with Rastafarian images mixed with words from the Psalms, this song of hope in captivity became a smash hit for Boney M. Hauntingly, Fofana samples and extends the sombre hummed chorus at the start of their 1978 recording, with its background of the churning sea, in which you seem to hear the last sighs of the drowned. He turns a disco relic into a beautiful redemption song.
JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana: Dark Waters is at Tate Liverpool until 4 June.