Joseph Mallord William Turner

Five Studies of Skies


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

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 90 x 112 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXVI 23 a

Catalogue entry

With the sketchbook inverted Turner has divided this page into six sections (two across, three down), in which he has drawn five small studies of skies (the bottom right section is blank). The studies record the appearance of the sky over coastal areas with diverse weather conditions and at different times of day, varying from brooding grey cloud, to a tranquil sunrise, a clear day and a dramatic multicoloured sky. Although his interest is in the skies, four of the sketches relate the sky to the land or sea, two of which have recognisable topographical settings. There are also boats, buildings and people, all clearly depicted in miniature.
The sketch to the top left looks out to sea with a ‘sand bank’ in the foreground. The picture is divided at roughly the middle point by the horizon, below which the silhouette of a boat can be seen. The sky is filled with jagged-edged clouds, the bottom portion of which contain light hatching and are marked ‘grey’. The picture is full of contrasts as the top right portion is ‘y[ellow]’ with ‘dark’ sky beneath and a ‘light’ sea at the bottom to the left and right. There is another inscription to the right of the boat which is indecipherable.
The study to the top right shows a ‘dark’ and ‘grey’ cloudy sky above a harbour with ‘sand’ to the left and ‘wa[ter]’ to the right. The location is likely to be Dunbar harbour as seen from the beach to the east. On the left are the harbour buildings with the masts of boats in the centre, then the harbour wall and the rocks of Dunbar on the right. Dunbar, circa 1823 (watercolour, private collection)1 was one of Turner’s subjects for the Provincial Antiquities and this is the only sketch of it in which he pays particular attention to the weather. The illustration, although not showing this view, was equally grey and stormy.
In the centre left sketch we look along a beach and out to sea at the rising sun. There are two discs, one above the other, in the sky. Turner has either changed the position of the sun (perhaps tracking its route through the sky – as in a sketch of 1822: Tate D17512; Turner Bequest CC 3 – experimenting with composition, or correcting a mistake), or is showing an effect of the light. Indeed the lower portion of the sky is shaded in to show such effects. The sea to the right is dark and there are three dark silhouettes of figures or buildings on the ‘sand’ in the distance to the left. This beach is probably somewhere along the East Lothian Coast near Dunbar or North Berwick, and may be somewhere like Peffer Sands near Scoughall.

Thomas Ardill
December 2007

Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.426 no.1066.
Ibid., p.426 nos.1066, 1067, 1069; 1060.

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