Book Review: ‘The Sea: Nature and culture’ by R. Hamblyn, Reaktion

By Faye Hammill, published November 2022


The Bayeux Tapestry, created about 1077, includes one of the earliest representations of the sea in European art. But while King Harold’s shipwrecked vessel and William’s invasion fleet are shown in some detail, the sea itself, as Richard Hamblyn points out, ‘is depicted in simple schematic form, by a series of undulating lines arranged in parallel rows’ (p. 155). He adds that seawater continued to be represented in this way for the next five centuries, in contexts ranging from medieval illuminated manuscripts to the seals designed for England’s Cinque Ports. Moving forward in time, it seems that there were still no interesting artistic representations of seawater until the arrival of J. M. W. Turner who, according to John Ruskin, was the first painter to realize that the sea was ‘a very incalculable and unhorizontal thing . . . very breakable into pieces’ (p. 163). Early maritime writing, Hamblyn explains, likewise ‘tended to focus on the human experience, on shipping and seafaring, rather than on the sea as a subject in its own right’ (p. 155). In The Sea: Nature and culture, Hamblyn brings the human and the non-human aspects together. He writes about tides and waves, corals and cetaceans, and the vertical migration of marine creatures. He discusses lighthouses and beach holidays, long-distance communication, and underwater photography. And there is much about seafaring: from the canoe voyages of early Oceania through to scientific expeditions and commercial fishing trips…

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Subjects include: Miscellaneous | Science & Exploration

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