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JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER, R.A.(1775-1851)The Loss of an East Indiaman HALSEWELL

Painted c.1818 and originally exhibited in 1819 as Loss of a Man of War. This was corrected when shown at Leeds in 1839 although it underwent several changes of title later.
Eric Shanes has shown convincingly that this disaster was based on the tragedy of the Halsewell, a merchantman, which sank on 6 January 1786. Only 74 of the 240 people on board survived, the ship finally breaking up on the rocks off Seacombe between Peverel Point and St Alban’s Head on the Isle of Purbeck. There were many accounts of the disaster which continued to appear until at least 1810 so that Turner would certainly have been aware of them. He actually referred to the sinking in an unpublished poem he wrote 1811-13 to accompany the letterpress to Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast. It is also likely that Turner knew Robert Smirke’s painting The Halsewell, East Indiaman or the aquatint after it by Robert Pollard published in 1786, as he and Smirke were well acquainted. But Turner has infused his version with such a sense of terror, danger, catastrophic wreckage and imminent loss of life that it bears little relation to Smirke’s despite some similarities – the broken mizzenmast for example.