Yet another Turner work featured in the exhibition, a watercolor entitled Yarmouth Sands (ca. 1840), presents a more hopeful scene. Again, the sea dominates the picture, and humans appear as tiny, black stick figures running across the beach, away from the waves. In contrast to Hunt’s work, though, the man-made structures here remain intact: A pier stands steady on the left side of the composition, while a ship in the distance appears to smoothly navigate the choppy sea.
Notably, one of Britain’s greatest—and most notorious—floods from the Romantic era was due to human error. In 1864, the Dale Dyke Dam near Sheffield in northern Britain collapsed
. Some 250 people died in the resulting Great Sheffield Flood, and over 5,000 buildings were ruined. According to the BBC
, at the time, the government blamed poor engineering on the part of the Sheffield Waterworks Company. Years later, studies discovered the specific cause of the disaster—the faulty construction of a watertight barrier.
The story is a parable fit for the industrial age, and our own era of rapid climate change: man tries to harness nature via machinery and fails, catastrophically. On one hand, this incident reinforces the idea that humans’ great tragedy-inducing sin is pride in thinking we can overcome the elements. On the other, the problem is simply poor science; such disasters encourage greater innovation. These conflicting attitudes toward man, nature, and progress pervade the works of Hunt, Martin, and Turner. But their art doesn’t just betray distinctly Victorian or British concerns—people all over the world are grappling with such issues anew.