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Technique and condition
This composition was executed on white wove paper, which must have been very wet for much of the painting. The later, brighter washes of blue were applied to fairly dry paper, and they formed a hard outline as they dried. The neat, blank strips on both sides and the lower edges suggest that the paper was taped down on these sides during painting, and possibly along the top as well. Here paint has seeped in, as though from an adjacent sheet on the same board. Great numbers of works in the Turner Bequest have been trimmed, possibly by Ruskin: the survival of such evidence is unusual. It is possible to work with glue-sized linen-based papers such as Turner used without restraining the sheet at all, simply by placing it on a flat surface before wetting it with brush-loads of water. The whole sheet seems to be an experiment in overlaying a limited number of washes of different colours, while controlling the wetness of the paper.
Examination at moderate magnification, up to x40, made it clear that the blue washes were painted with Prussian blue, while the red paint trails are an (unusual) mixture of vermilion and Mars red, the latter being a manufactured earth pigment that is brighter in tone than any of the natural varieties, and in regular use by Turner in oil paintings. The identifications of these materials were in fact confirmed by removed tiny samples the size of a pin-point, and placing them in the sample chamber of a scanning electron microscope, under an X-ray beam. This beam interacts with the elements that make up each pigment, and the resulting spectrum makes it possible to work out which elements are present. Since it is already known that the washes are pure colours, it is then possible to work out exactly which pigment was used in each case. Examination at moderate magnifications also revealed a purplish red earth pigment which Turner used only intermittently, and which not have been easy to obtain. Yellow ochre and a black pigment were also used.
The white reflection of the moon in the rippling water was scratched out, while a simple horizontal scratch at the point where the shore meets the water instantly creates depth in the image. Washing-out would not have given such a dramatic highlight, in either case.
The ‘muted colours and bold shapes’1 here combine in a ‘record of a powerful motif’,2 which has been exhibited and published under close variations of Finberg’s title ‘Hulks on Tamar: Twilight’.3 With the characteristic curving mass of the decommissioned warship’s hull (or possibly more than one overlapping) largely an unmodulated brown against the grey silhouette of the wooded bank beyond, perhaps Finberg was thinking of an anecdote from the Devon journalist Cyrus Redding (1785–1870), who was one of Turner’s close companions during his extended stay in the Plymouth area in the summer of 1813 (see the introduction to the ‘West Country 1813’ section of this catalogue). As Redding later vividly put it:
I remember one evening on the Tamar, the sun had set, and the shadows become very deep. [The artist James] Demaria looking at a seventy-four lying under Saltash, said:
‘You were right, Mr. Turner, the ports cannot be seen. The ship is one dark mass.’
‘I told you so,’ said Turner, ‘now you see it – all is one mass of shade.’
‘Yes, I see that is the truth, and yet the ports are there.’
‘We can take only what we see, no matter what is there. There are people in the ship – we don’t see them through the planks.’
‘True,’ replied Demaria.
There had been a discussion on the subject before between the two professional men, in which Turner had rightly observed, that after sunset, under the hills, the port-holes were undiscernible. We had now ocular proof of it.4
A later variation has ‘the sun just setting, and the shadows becoming dark and deep’, allowing the demonstration of Turner’s prediction that ‘we should only see the hulls – a mass of shadow.’5
In 1812, the year after his first general West Country tour in search of material for the Southern Coast scheme (see the Introduction to this section), The River Plym6 was among several oil paintings shown at Turner’s gallery. Untraced ever since, it was possibly the scene now known as Hulks on the Tamar, with several vessels dark against a bright sky (Tate T03881; displayed at Petworth House, West Sussex);7 there are a few relevant drawings in the 1811 Devonshire Coast, No.1 sketchbook (for example Tate D08717; Turner Bequest CXXIII 192). The present study is, perhaps fortuitously, comparable with one off Saltash a few pages on (Tate D08721; Turner Bequest CXXIII 195).
Perkins 1990, p.26.
Brown 2007, p.13.
Finberg 1909, I, p.599.
Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, Literary and Personal, with Observations on Men and Things, London 1858, vol.I, pp.204–5; quoted in full in Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by his Friends and Fellow-Academicians, London 1862, vol.I, pp.206–7, and again in Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by his Friends and Fellow-Academicians: A New Edition, Revised with 8 Coloured Illustrations after Turner’s Originals and 2 Woodcuts, London 1897, pp.145–6.
Cyrus Redding, Past Celebrities Whom I Have Known, London 1866, vol.I, pp.55–6.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.84 no.118.
Ibid., pp.84–5 no.119, pl.126; see also Perkins 1990, p.26.
See Wilton 1983, p.200.