Joseph Mallord William Turner

At Sheerness


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

Graphite on paper
Support: 112 x 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCIX 90 a

Catalogue entry

Identified by Finberg as ‘Scenes on Medway’, the drawings on this page describe delicately handled views of a busy waterway, populated with light, spindly vessels.1 Sheerness is suggested as the location for all of the sketches, an identification based upon the delineation and inscription of a sea wall along the harbour front in a drawing close to the bottom of the sheet, and the configuration of buildings stationed behind it.
The topmost view has been the subject of commentary by Charles Lewis Hind, who remarks upon the inscriptions which mark the tumultuous sky with detailed colour notes, concluding that ‘[no] labour either with pen or pencil was too arduous to hinder [Turner] from noting down his impression of the effects of nature from hour to hour and day to day’.2 Turner juxtaposes dramatic weather conditions against his meticulous, even whimsical inscriptions. For example: ‘Rain with...colour along its edge’. The rumbling clouds and sharp hatches of rain that scar the sky are counterbalanced below by seemingly placid, ‘warm blue’ water, and various vessels with their sails furled before a slice of flat topography.
Below this is a sketch more concerned with the maritime landscape than the topographic one. A tall warship is shown in profile at left, the yards which cross its masts described with brief horizontal marks. Its bowsprit points sharply to the right, where the scene continues. A variety of boats populate the water, all shown in profile and reasonably swift in their handling. Particularly at left, the cluttered forest of vertical masts extends far into the distance, towards the stretch of land evident on the horizon.
Immediately underneath is the drawing which provokes the topographic identification for the folio. Presumably observed from a boat floating close by, the scene shows a substantial harbour, with vessels moored at left and architecture at right. Across the middle portion of the sketch Turner has scored a horizontal line, which is inscribed at right ‘Wall’. Between 1811 and 1812, sea walls had been constructed along the front at Sheerness on foundations of ‘buoyant masses’ according to designs by Sir Samuel Bentham.3 The Dockyard Church at Sheerness is evident at far right, immediately adjacent with the gutter of the sketchbook.

Maud Whatley
January 2016

Finberg 1909, I, p.609.
Hind 1910 and 1925, p.124.
‘The Sea Walls at Sheerness Dockyard, and Sir Samuel Bentham’s System of Employing Buoyant Masses for Foundations in Deep Water’, Mechanic’s Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal & Gazette, July 1st–December 30th, London 1848, p.278.

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