BBC2 Turner Documentary and George William Manby

Date Posted: 21/09/2012

I have just finished filming  for a new BBC2 documentary about Turner, and particularly about Turner’s interest in technology.

We decided to focus in particular on this painting:

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Turner, who was USELESS at coming up with painting titles, called it ‘ Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going off to a Stranded Vessel making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress. Snappy.

At first it seems rather a dull image but if you see it in real life there is all sorts of amazing stuff going on and, as always with Turner, the painting tells a story.

Manby was a crackpot inventor who had witnessed a horrid wreck off Yarmouth in 1807 when the Snipe ran aground on a sandbank only 100 yards out. The next morning the beach was littered with dead. There was no way to get a line out to a ship so distressed, and so Manby invented one.

He cleverly attacked a rope to a shot, fired from a mortar, which was fired towards the ship in distress. Hopefully the shot could then be fired with sufficient accuracy to get it somewhere near the ship. The drowning sailors then had to find the rope in the sea (in a storm, probably at night) and, before dying, tie it to their ship. Then they had to climb into a sort of canvas sling or boat and be pulled ashore through the enormous surf crashing on the sandbank. Apparently this sometimes worked though I suspect that, because of the way Turner painted this, he had his doubts.

The drama is painted at such a distance that it is impossible to tell whether the apparatus worked or not. Turner is having fun here; revelling in the great conundrum of new inventions. How can you tell if something is actually going to make a difference? How can you tell if your trust in new technology – or, in this case if you are one of the wrecked sailors – your hope is misplaced?

My conclusion? Turner would have loved Dragon’s Den.