Was this painting intended to be an image of sea monsters? Kim Gowland urges teachers to help pupils use imagination and curiosity in exploring landscape art.
At first glance, Turner's painting "Sunrise with Sea Monsters" appears to be a fearsome sea creature with a giant, vacuum-like mouth. On closer inspection, however, it becomes two fish rising side by side to the surface of the sea, perhaps snared by a fishing net, or jumping in an attempt to evade capture. Turner had been fascinated by fishing since his youth, and remained a keen angler throughout his life, occasionally making private sketches of his catch.
It seems most likely that "Sunrise with Sea Monsters" is a painting which was abandoned by Turner; its scale and compositional structure point towards an exhibition picture which was begun but never completed. In its unfinished state, it perfectly illustrates the inventiveness of Turner's painting technique; on top of thin, watercolour-like glazes are solid passages of impasto, laid on with a knife and removed in parts by the sharp end of a brush or the artist's fingers to suggest forms and movement.
Along with thousands of drawings, watercolours and finished oil paintings which remained unsold, "Sunrise with Sea Monsters" became part of the Turner bequest and is permanently on display at Tate Britain.
The painting's title is a good starting point for introducing pupils to this painting. What is this actually a picture of? Is it a finished painting? What is going on in the image? What can we actually see? Once you have established what they think they can see, you can turn to the title for direction. This would seem to answer all your questions - it is a picture of a sunrise with sea monsters. Or is it? In common with many of Turner's unfinished works, "Sunrise with Sea Monsters" was given its title by a curator during the early years of the 20th century, long after the artist's death. The true meaning of the central subject, therefore, remains typically enigmatic and ambiguous.
So, even if Turner did not intend this to be a painting of sea monsters, the title offers an enjoyable and imaginative way into the painting for children. Traditions about sea monsters in a literary context take us back to Jonah and the whale in the Old Testament, to medieval beasts, and to folk myths like the story of the Loch Ness monster.
For upper primary or lower secondary pupils, Alfred Lord Tennyson's wonderful poem "The Kraken", would make an ideal starting point for unlocking children's imaginations. Inspired by an enormous mythical sea monster said to have been seen from time to time off the coast of Norway in the 19th century, "The Kraken" was written around the same time that Turner painted "Sunrise with Sea Monsters". Its words evoke similar feelings to the painting.
Below the thunders of the upper deep; Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee About his shadowy sides: above him swell Huge sponges of millennial growth and height; And far away into the sickly light, For many a wondrous grot and secret cell Unnumber'd and enormous polypi Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep, Until the latter fire shall heat the deep; Then once by man and angels to be seen, In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) In discussion, you can draw attention to certain undertones, such as the reference to the Apocalypse, the "latter fire" which the New Testament proclaims will end the world before the Messiah comes. Ask pupils which sea monsters they may have heard of in films and books, on television or in real life. What monsters could they imagine lurking in the deep sea? This kind of evocative painting can be a good stimulus to writing their own sea monster poem about the painting, or extending creativity to include their own inner "monsters", things that frighten them when they themselves feel "at sea" in the world. In primary school or for key stage 3 art lessons, the same ideas could be explored visually. Play sea-related music (Debussy's La Mer, for instance) while the children paint or write. In primary school, the painting could also be used to inspire their own musical compositions.
By now, the children will have come a long way from the Turner painting; a way on which they will have learned that the more they let their curiosity and imagination loose on art, the richer the experience is.
This painting is part of a major exhibition of Turner's late seascapes, showing at Manchester Art Gallery until January 25. Admission pound;5 adults; free for under 18s Kim Gowland is communications manager at Manchester City Art Gallery