No.70 Wreck on the Goodwin Sands

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Miss Alice Tully, 1996.67. Photography by Steven A. Crossot, 2014.
Wreck on the Goodwin Sands, J M W Turner. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Miss Alice Tully, 1996.67. Photography by Steven A. Crossot, 2014.

This week’s wreck is a work of art and today I’d like to invite ‘audience participation’ focusing on wreck processes.

Wreck on the Goodwin Sands is currently on view at Tate Britain’s Late Turner exhibition as an excellent example of Turner’s late style, loose and impressionistic, yet amazingly precise in every detail. We see the skeleton of a wreck sitting upon the sands at low tide, with part of the sands exposed in streaks of yellow. Economical brushstrokes suggest the ribs of a vessel bowing out towards port and starboard, substantially more intact on both sides towards the middle and left of the painting, less so on the right, where one side is missing. A long downward stroke suggests a partially detached stem-post, with the ribs behind somewhat embedded in the exposed sand. Turner has pencilled some of his bleak poetry in lines only partially legible on the fallacy of hope, clearly identifying the wreck as one on the Goodwins. The view is from seaward of the Sands looking towards the white streak representing the famous cliffs of the Dover area.

My question this week is – what do you think happened to the ship Turner has shown here? Is it potential evidence for a wreck event?

Here are some potential clues: 

The Goodwin Sands were named as the ‘Great Ship Swallower’ as early as the 16th century, which has historically been characteristic of many of our designated wrecks in the vicinity, the Stirling Castle perhaps being the most dramatic of all, being found in a remarkably intact state, despite striking the sands in the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703.

There are other recorded wrecks, such as the Ogle Castle, an East Indiaman lost in 1825, where the ship disintegrated so comprehensively that much of her cargo was picked up in succeeding days as far afield as the Netherlands and Belgium.

Even those ships which floated off were often so badly damaged that they sank in deep water nearby, as happened with the Shepherdess in 1844.

Turner obsessively sketched what he saw and reused many sketches as details in paintings several years or decades later.

We have 24 wrecks recorded on the Goodwin Sands for the period 1840-1849, none for 1845 – the paper being characteristic of Turner’s sketchbooks for 1845. There is the possibility of some under-reporting, of course. Could it represent a wreck event we have not yet recorded?

Note the vertical brushstrokes suggesting ribs, but little in the way of horizontal brushstrokes to suggest the sides of the ship.

Responses will be collated and examined in a post in the New Year.

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