Joseph Mallord William Turner

A River Scene with Eel Traps

c.1807–19

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Medium
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 231 x 377 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D08086
Turner Bequest CXV 3

Catalogue entry

The setting for this undeveloped sketch is unidentified – if not imaginary – though probably based on observation in the backwaters of the Thames; the tower of a church or castle appears on the horizon. One set of traps forms the focus of the composition, though there is another less prominent group at an angle to the left. In the middle distance to the right, a pencilled-in bridge seems to have been altered with a dark wash into a set of lock gates. There are at least two figures in the foreground, indicated in wash outline; one possibly holds a fishing rod.
An eel trap is prominent in the foreground of an otherwise unrelated watercolour in the Thames, from Reading to Walton sketchbook of 1805 (Tate D05913; Turner Bequest XCV 13); another sketch in the same book (T05940; XCV 36), shows figures in a punt, possibly in pursuit of eels. Eel pots appear in Thames studies in the Tabley Sketchbook, No.3 (Tate D07130; Turner Bequest CV 92), and eel-catching is shown in the later Walmer Ferry sketchbook (Tate D10662; Turner Bequest CXLII 10). Turner was himself a keen fisherman, and frequently depicted river- and sea-fishing.1 In the absence of specific evidence, the span of the Liber Studiorum’s active publication, 1807–19, is given here as a date range for the present work (as it is for various other unpublished designs). The earlier published date of circa 1806 is clearly not viable given the sheet’s 1807 watermark. Studies made on adjacent pages probably also show or are derived from Thames scenery: see Tate D08084, D08085, D08087, D08088; Turner Bequest CXV 1, 2, 4, 5).2
1
See James Hamilton, ‘Fishing’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann eds., The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, p.110.
2
Forrester 1996, p.24 note 81.
Technical notes:
The left and lower edges are free of colour. Turner’s pencil work is here largely limited to the defining the eel traps and the bridge or lock beyond. The washes include brown ochre, Indian red, Mars red and sepia shades, the latter prominent in indicating scrubby vegetation in the foreground. The background washes were done on with the paper wetted.1
This sheet was recorded by Finberg in 1909 as apparently still being in the sketchbook, but if so it was subsequently removed before the book was badly damaged by immersion in the basement of the Tate Gallery during the Thames flood of January 1928. His number, ‘3’, corresponds with the red ink folio numbers inscribed in the book by Ruskin. The whole sheet was taken from the book, leaving no stub, and then trimmed slightly irregularly at the left-hand edge to remove the stitching holes, their vestiges being just apparent.
1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.

Matthew Imms
May 2006

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