Joseph Mallord William Turner

Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower

exhibited 1798

On display at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 889 x 1194 mm
frame: 1092 x 1400 x 85 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This Lake District scene was shown at the Royal Academy in 1798 along with several other North of England subjects, following Turner’s first tour of the region the previous year. It is based on a sketchbook study (Tate) worked up in watercolour to show the stormy conditions he presumably witnessed, writing ‘Black’ on the surface of the lake. This was his cue for the mood of this dramatic painting, enlivened by the rainbow which would become a frequent motif. Turner is making a consciously ‘Sublime’ statement, intended to evoke the viewer’s awe at the grandeur of Nature.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

7. [N00460] Buttermere Lake, with part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower Exh. 1798

Canvas, 36 1/8 × 48 (91·5 × 122).

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (80, ‘Landscape with Rainbow’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1798 (527); Tate Gallery 1931 (4); Tate Gallery 1959 (343); New York 1966 (1, repr. p. 6); R.A. 1974–5 (30, repr.); Victoria and Albert Museum 1984–5.

Lit. Farington Diary 5 January 1798; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 261; 1877, p. 418; Bell 1901, pp. 61, 73 no. 90 (as exh. R.A. 1799); Armstrong 1902, p. 219; Rawlinson and Finberg 1909, pp. 30–31; Finberg 1910, p. 35; Davies 1946, p. 187; Clark 1949, p. 104; Clare 1951, pp. 22–3, repr.; Finberg 1961, pp. 45, 49, 461 no. 47, pl. 6; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 10. pl. 7; Gowing 1966, p. 7, repr p. 6; Lindsay 1966, p. 36; Gage 1969, pp. 56, 135; Reynolds 1969, p. 36, pl. 23; Gaunt 1971, p. 5, colour pl. 1; Watson 1971, pp. 111–13; Ziff 1971, p. 126; Wilkinson 1972, pp. 47–9, repr. p. 49; Herrmann 1975, pp. 12, 225, colour pl. 10; Heffernan 1978, pp. 143–4; Wilton 1979, p. 56, pl. 35; Wilton 1980, pp. 35–6, pl. vii; Paulson 1982, pp. 67–8, 103, pl. 34; Ziff 1982, pp. 226–8, pl. 1.

First exhibited with the following verses, a conflation of Thomson's ‘Spring’, ll. 189–205:

‘Till in the western sky the downward sun
'Looks out effulgent—the rapid radiance instantaneous strikes
'Th'illumin'd mountains—in a yellow mist
'Bestriding earth—The grand ethereal bow
'Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds.’

Vide Thompson's [sic] Seasons.

Turner omits many of Thomson's images and more interestingly in view of his later interest in colour-theory, the immediately following lines which refer to Newton and his ‘showery prism’. Gage suggests that the verses, which do not altogether fit the subdued colouring of the picture, and in particular of the rainbow, were an afterthought occasioned by the new permission in 1798 to include quotations in the R.A. catalogue. Ziff on the other hand sees the discrepancy merely as the result of the relatively dark tonality characteristic of Turner's early style: Turner's alteration of the position of the rainbow in the preliminary watercolour in the ‘Tweed and Lakes’ sketchbook (XXXV, p. 84; repr. in colour Wilkinson, op cit.) shows that he had Thomson's text in mind from the beginning. Ziff (1982) suggests that the watercolour was worked up in London over an on-the-spot pencil drawing similar to those of Buttermere on pages 27 (repr. pl. 2) and 28 with Thomson's verses in mind, and that Turner was probably also influenced by William Gilpin's Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty ... Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, 1786, which quotes the same lines. In the oil Turner added the reflection of the rainbow in the lake.

Other features added in the oil are the little rowing boat and foreground branches, though the boat with its two passengers does appear in another watercolour from the same sketchbook (XXXV, p. 87; repr. in colour Wilkinson, op. cit., pp. 46–7). In addition Turner strengthened the feeling of volume enfolding the rainbow by making the distant hills less ethereal.

For Hoppner's judgement, recorded by Farington, and two favourable reviews, see No.5 [N00461].

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984