Shipwrecks in Popular Art and Culture

Great Britain ruled the seas in the nineteenth century. Control of the oceans was pivotal to an island nation with a vast empire around the world. The British Navy was the largest in the world. Famously, the British status quo declared that the Royal Navy must double the second largest in the world in quantity at all times. The navy protected British commercial and military interests around the world. The sea fascinated Victorian society and the English were drawn to the adventure and awe surrounding maritime feats. Sea battles determined the fate of nations, and ocean exploration demonstrated the suspension of the boundaries of knowledge. The shipwreck was a particular subject of popular interest in Victorian culture. Shipwrecks occurred frequently, were featured extensively in the press, and shipwreck narratives–both true and fictitious were easily accessible. These factors combined to turn the shipwreck into a “fascination bordering upon a cultural preoccupation” in England in the late eighteenth and entire nineteenth century.1

The shipwreck was a prominent setting for romantic landscape paintings as the British Romantic movement gained steam in the early 19th century. Painters like J.M.W Turner emphasized the overwhelming beauty of nature with romantic notions of heroism and individualism. The shipwreck was the perfect vessel for demonstrating the omnipotent power of the seas and the deference of humanity to the dominance of the natural world. In his 1805 painting “The Shipwreck,” Turner depicts the struggle between man and the sea. The cloud and sea intersect as red and orange dots emphasize the flailing sailors amidst the rolling waves.2 In 1820, the British Museum opened Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” for exhibition. The British press celebrated the grand work as “this tremendous picture of human sufferings…” and “the powerful element of the mighty waters.” Despite the positive reception, the British public was less enthralled with melodrama compared with anti-rational notions of the dominance of nature.3

J.M.W Turner's "The Shipwreck," 1805.
Turner’s “The Shipwreck.”4

After the wreck of the Forfarshire in 1838, there was demand for more precautions in the use of steam power–and intense interest in paintings of the shipwreck and portraits of its famed heroine: Grace Darling. Darling’s heroic battle with the raging ocean (and gender conventions) captivated the British public. Beyond art and newspapers, her romantic rescue became the subject of a play. Darling was even invited to the London stage, which she refused.5 The Forfarshire did not fade from public memory. On the wreck’s anniversary in 1882, a special correspondent for the Newcastle Daily Chronicle wrote that the date was held in remembrance all down the Northeastern coast. The article describes the opening of the Maritime Exhibition at Tynemouth Aquarium, 44 years to the day of Darling’s heroic rescue. In remembrance of the tragedy, the article retells the story of the wreck of the Forfarshire.6

As steam replaced the sail, the vogue of the shipwreck declined. Despite its relative loss in popularity, the British illustrator Myles Birket Foster described the popularity of shipwreck literature and the sea and its importance to British identity. Foster stated that “presenting the most affecting examples of human suffering and moral heroism may be said to rest on an imperishable basis. It has survived many revolutions and taste of opinion and unquestionably will be read as long as the British enterprise and valour maintain their empire on the sea.” Through art, literature, and the popular press, the Victorian public was fascinated by the sea and shipwrecks such as the Forfarshire.  

Muskgrave, “Wreck of the Forfarshire.”7

Footnote Citations

  1. Palmer, William J. “Dickens and Shipwreck.” Dickens Studies Annual 18 (1989): 52.
  2. Boase, T.S.R. 1959. “Shipwrecks in English Romantic Painting.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22 (3-4): 332-346.
  3.  Boase, T.S.R. 1959. “Shipwrecks in English Romantic Painting,” 340.
  4.  Turner, J.M.W. “The Shipwreck,” 1805. Tate Britain.
  5. Boase, T.S.R. 1959. “Shipwrecks in English Romantic Painting,” 343.
  6. Our Special Correspondent. Grace Darling. Pamphlets. Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 1882.
  7. Muskgrave Thomas, Joy. “Wreck of the Forfarshire,” 1840. Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collections.