The Wreck Buoy by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

Visitors to Sudley House near Liverpool are able to enjoy several examples of the work of the great British landscape painter JMW Turner. The Wreck Buoy is the shining example; it captures Turner’s obsession with the sea at the height of his power. Whilst a controversial figure in his own lifetime, his reputation as a master is now assured. Known as the great ‘painter of light’ Turner’s influence on the later Impressionist movement is now firmly acknowledged.

The Wreck Buoy by Joseph Mallord William Turner

The painting’s impressive dimensions allow the viewer to ruminate on both the majesty and ferocity of nature. Its location in the house of ship owner and merchant George Holt reminds us of Liverpool’s reliance on the sea for trade and prosperity. Yet for all of Turner’s ability to romanticise the stormy weather that surrounds our small island nation, this painting represents a much darker side. The wreck buoy floats atop the unrelenting wave warning sailors of the danger beneath. It marks the spot where the bodies of their peers lie. The rainbow arching over the horizon points down towards the buoy, its vibrant colours have been drained by the storm and are all but lost on the canvas. It is a stark reminder of the futility of human endeavour.

This is a re-working of a much earlier painting, the original theme of which has now been lost. After the death of his father in 1829, Turner was prone to bouts of depression and this revised theme perhaps summarises Turner’s state of mind at the time. The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin described this painting as “…the last oil he painted before his noble hand forgot its cunning.” It featured in cinemas around the world when it appeared on the wall of Turner’s studio in the critically acclaimed 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr Turner.

The Wreck Buoy can be seen hanging in the dining room of Sudley House. Sudley House is located on Mossley Hill Road near Liverpool and is open daily from 10am to 5pm, admission is free.

Image © National Museums Liverpool

Why you should see this painting:

This majestic seascape by one of Britain’s most controversial and inspirational painters demonstrates Turner’s skill and acknowledges his influence in raising the status of British landscape painting.

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