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This study, possibly for a Liber Studiorum subject, may be a distant echo of Turner’s early genre scene, painted in rivalry with the young David Wilkie, A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1807 (Tate, N00478).1 Sir John Leicester (the future Lord de Tabley) had bought it in the following year and Turner reacquired it at the latter’s estate sale in 1827; its first exhibition had coincided with the publication of part 1 of the Liber.
Here, the ‘Rembrandtian darks and lights’2 of the cave-like space are created by rapid washes and reserving the blank paper at the centre, possibly indicating the firelight thrown by the blacksmith’s forge. There appears to be a second figure just beyond and to the right of the silhouetted one, almost lost in the glare but with the shadows of its face and head touched in with wash, and a shadow thrown against the arch. In the relative gloom to the right may be the washed-out figure of a woman, possibly carrying a child indicated by darker strokes, with a white horse against the wall beyond; the reserved area in front of them may be for another figure, perhaps kneeling or seated. The presence of a woman and child would be in the tradition of the nocturnal industrial scenes of Joseph Wright of Derby, such as An Iron Forge, exhibited in 1772 (Tate T06670). Turner had made chiaroscuro studies of forges and foundries earlier in his career (for example, Tate D00873; Turner Bequest XXXIII B). The dark 1800s painting of an industrial interior reworked and exhibited in 1847 as The Hero of a Hundred Fights (Tate N00551)3 uses similar formal means to dramatise the processes of metalworking.
This sheet was once part of a larger one, later divided into four,4 each quarter of which Turner worked on in watercolour. In relation to the others, it was at the top left, with a seascape (Tate D25373; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 251) inverted to its right. The quarters originally below them comprise two Liber-style, brown wash landscape studies, Tate D08108 (Turner Bequest CXVI G) – on the verso in relation to the other three – and Tate D08222 (Turner Bequest CXX I); there is no overlap of washes between the two lower quarters and those above, implying that half of the sheet was separated and halved again before work commenced. Apparently, the present work and the seascape were begun while still joined, as the dark wash at the top here continues as the sea in the latter (although there is a slight vertical break in the wash on the latter sheet, possibly due to a fold between them). There are other overlaps of wash from the right-hand edge of the present composition to the corresponding edge of the seascape. When the two were separated, they were left uneven, with a jagged matching edge at one corner, and a thin strip of wash from the upper right of this composition evident on the other.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.52–3 no.68, pl.78 (colour).
Hamilton 1998, p.49.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.271–2 no.427, pl.432 (colour).
Forrester 1996, p.25 note 92.
Finberg 1909, I, p.316.
Forrester 1996, p.25 note 92.