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Book Review, NRJ 60.1

February 15, 2015 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Voyage of The Slave Ship: J.M.W. Turner’s Masterpiece in Historical Context

Stephen J. May

In the preface and introduction of The Voyage of The Slave Ship: J.M.W. Turner’s Masterpiece in Historical Context, Stephen J. May declares his intent to evaluate the background, history, previous reviews and his own opinion of Turner’s painting The Slave Ship. In the following chapters, he does just that, exceeding expectations with a copious amount of detail. He immediately catches the reader in the preface and deftly guides them through the first few chapters with a colorful historical background, setting the scene for the introduction of the painting, Turner, and the major players involved in the fate of the painting.

May goes on to chronical the life of Turner and the painting. In the evaluation of the creation of the painting, he makes strong, declared postulations based on historical connections between those involved in the abolition movement and Turner. This gives a district life to the painting that would otherwise be missing. However, at times, May makes certain declarative statements without clear evidence or a disclaimer, such as his belief that The Slave Ship portrayed the savage acts aboard the slaver Zong, due to the extensive news coverage of the trail and, therefore, Turner’s enviable knowledge of the tale. Yet, May did not provide any hard evidence that Turner was absolutely aware of the incident or that he was directly influenced by it. While this is a fair conclusion given the facts, it is not certain.

The discussion of the composition of the painting is sprinkled throughout the book, there is no one chapter dedicated to the content, brushwork or technique. Nor is there any discussion of the painting from a technical standpoint. This does not detract from the book, as May’s intent is not a simple discussion of the artistic qualities of the painting. Rather than throwing around confusing artistic terms, May choses to focus on the painting as a whole, such as how a laymen would see it, making the painting a more accessible experience for the reader.

May does an exceedingly thorough job of explaining and examining everyone who had any influence on the fate of the paining; some might argue too thorough of an examination in some cases. Occasionally, he provides such an intense level of information about an individual other than Turner it begins to pass from supporting dialog into unneeded information, leaving the reader slightly confused about how the additional biographical facts connect to Turner or the painting. Some trimming of this excess may help streamline the points and connections May is trying to make. However, in many of the examples, the author’s digressions, as lengthy as they are, circle back around to make a point about the painting or Turner, such as in the case of his discussion of the sublime; which at first seems like an over explained idea, but then consistently reemerges throughout the examination of the life and players of the painting.

Although at times May can delve a little too in-depth for the average reader, overall, he provides an accessible evaluation of the history and life of J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship and those men directly connected to it, that even the most historically or artistically challenged reader can relate to, enjoy, and understand.

  • Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2014
  • 6” x 9”, softcover, vii + 206 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00
  • ISBN: 9780786479894

Reviewed by Michele Panico, East Carolina University

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