Turner’s Subversive Boat

The painter, Turner,

Hid in a boat on the Thames

In 1851.


He moored it mid-stream,

So those taking the Census

Couldn’t question him.


But, nevertheless,

While avoiding the State snoops –

Keen to publicize


His life’s intimate

Details to all and sundry –

He’d become famous:


For his dream landscapes;

For ‘The Fighting Temeraire’;

For his red-gold skies;


Stonehenge at sunset;

Salisbury Cathedral’s spire,

Wreathed in brooding mist;


Wreckers’ rugged coasts;

Seascapes of Northumberland.

Turner froze all night


To catch a day’s dawn,

Then he’d paint it as timeless –

The light of the world,


While he kept hidden

From authority and State power,

Avoiding capture,


This man in a boat,

J. Mallord William Turner,

Freeborn Englishman –


Who chose to live by

Spurning the powers that be –

Just rowing his boat,


Looking for beauty

In whatever caught his eye,

As well as for truth.


In Turner’s painting

‘The Slave Ship’, bodies in chains

Are thrown overboard


By the slaves’ masters

To be set upon by sharks.

A routine practice


When the slave owners

Found their cargo troublesome,

Or too ill to treat,


Unprofitable to feed

Or just pining to be free.

The snares of the State


Are now much subtler,

But slaves are still rounded up,

Farmed for their taxes,


Spied on by cameras,

Questioned by nosy strangers

Filling in long forms


Such as the Census,

So the State can know who’s who

If there’s civil unrest.


But, bobbing in his boat

And never to be enslaved,

Turner ruled the waves.


He disobeyed –

Was disaffiliated

From Queen and Country


And in ‘The Burning of

The Houses Of Lords and Commons’

He paints it with glee –


Painting fire and light,

Liberated from the gothic gloom

Of power and privilege.


Heathcote Williams


By Heathcote Williams

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