Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Tower or Spire in a Landscape (‘Aurora Borealis’)


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour, gouache and graphite on paper
Support: 310 x 488 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 158

Display caption

At the bottom of this sheet Turner has inscribed the words 'Aurora Borealis', possibly suggesting that this sketch records the natural phenomenon also known as the 'northern lights'. However, Turner has not actually recreated any of the distinctive, often spectacular, effects usually associated with these unusual apparitions. This is, nevertheless, a nocturnal scene. The looming form, seen indistinctly at the centre of the image, is more likely to be a church tower than a lighthouse.

Gallery label, September 1995

Catalogue entry

The subject of this colour study is currently unidentified, but the focus appears to be a distant tower or spire, apparently lit up against a night sky. However, there seems to be no visual indication of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, noted in Turner’s inscription; these spectacular light effects in the upper atmosphere at high latitudes are normally only visible to Britain observers in Scotland.
Andrew Wilton has noted a possible compositional link between this colour study and Tate D25227 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 105),1 a view of a spire beyond water and trees. Eric Shanes has suggested the present design may be a colour study of a lighthouse, relating to the series of Turner’s watercolours engraved as Picturesque View in England and Wales (published 1827–38).2 Turner began delivering the finished watercolours early in 1825, hence the broad range date given here to the present sheet. More specifically, Shanes proposes it as a variant of the 1819 watercolour of the Bell Rock Lighthouse (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh),3 in the North Sea off Angus in Scotland, although the crashing white waves of that design contrast with the obscure, dark forms here, suggesting foliage, trees and nocturnal clouds or perhaps smoke.
See also the introductions to the present subsection of unidentified subjects and the overall England and Wales ‘colour beginnings’ grouping to which it has been assigned.
Wilton 1975, p.74.
Shanes 1997, p.96.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.357 no.502.
Technical notes:
There are black and red colour tests at the top right.
Blank; inscribed in pencil ‘AB 150 P | O’ top left, upside down; inscribed in pencil ‘158 | CCLXIII’ bottom right; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram above ‘CCLXIII – 158’ bottom right.
The ‘AB’ number corresponds with the endorsement on one of the parcels of works sorted by John Ruskin during his survey of the Turner Bequest, in this case classified by him as ‘Colour dashes on white. Valueless’.1

Matthew Imms
March 2013

Transcribed in Finberg 1909, II, p.814.

Read full Catalogue entry


You might like