Joseph Mallord William Turner

Folkestone from the Sea


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

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 488 x 684 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII Y

Display caption

Here the moon plays a key role in Turner's narrative. A party of English smugglers is shown receiving barrels of illegal gin from French sailors by moonlight. An operation routinely carried out under the cover of nightfall is exposed by a sunrise which has arrived too early for the miscreants. From the right approaches a boat of the Coast Blockade, initiated in 1816 to combat smuggling, which is spotted by the men who quickly try to 'sink' the barrels on ropes for later retrieval. Beyond their narrative significance, the twin light sources of moon and sun fuse the atmosphere of the painting into an ethereal whole.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

This large, elaborate but slightly unfinished design was included in the ‘“Rivers and Ports,” &c.: Finished Drawings’ section of Finberg’s 1909 Turner Bequest Inventory, although as he placed it without further comment at the end of that section, after the ‘Rivers of Devon’ watercolour Ivy Bridge (Tate D18157; Turner Bequest CCVIII X), he presumably did not intend to associate it directly with the smaller and more highly wrought watercolours engraved for the Rivers and Ports of England (for which see Alice Rylance-Watson’s sections dated c.1822–4 and c.1822–8 in the present catalogue).
Tate D25480 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 357) is a rather less finished variation on the theme of the present work, while Twilight – Smugglers off Folkestone Fishing Up Smuggled Gin (private collection),1 exhibited at the engraver and publisher W.B. Cooke’s gallery in 1824 (41)2 is also associated with Cooke’s short-lived Marine Views print scheme (see the Introduction to this section);3 it was subsequently engraved by Thomas Lupton in the same format as the two published designs he had worked on, but not issued; see the entry for Tate’s impression (T05197) for further discussion. This was possibly because of the breakdown in relations between Turner and Cooke in 1827, or perhaps it was abandoned as its lawless subject might be regarded as a contentious one to put before the public; that would have been even more of an issue here, with the detailed depiction of criminal activities centre stage.
David Brown has suggested that ‘so accurate are Turner’s rendering ... that it is likely that he went out with smugglers to observe their methods’.4 Compare two subjects associated with the later Picturesque Views in England and Wales series which were probably not pursued on the grounds of potential controversy, depicting a parliamentary election in Northampton in 1830 (Tate T12321) and the fiery destruction of Parliament itself in 1834 (Tate D36235; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 373). Nevertheless, other aspects of smuggling associated with Folkestone are shown in watercolours for Cooke’s Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati),5 engraved in 1826 (Tate impression: T05254) and England and Wales (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven),6 engraved in 1831 (Tate impressions: T04570, T04571).7 For a comprehensive summary of the port in Turner’s drawings from the 1810s through to 1845, see Alice Rylance-Watson’s Introduction to the Ideas of Folkestone sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CCCLVI) in the ‘Kent Coast and Whaling c.1844–5’ section.
Wilton 1979, p.358 no.509, as untraced; Eric Shanes, Turner’s England 1810–38, London 1990, p.271 no.245, reproduced.
Finberg 1961, p.485; see also Shanes 1990, pp.12, 281 note 49.
See also Wilton 1979, p.512, Shanes 1981, p.33, Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.44, Shanes 1990, pp.120–1, Warrell 1991, p.20, Shanes 1997, p.28, Shanes 2000, p.155, Brown 2007, p.14, and Brown 2008, p.19.
David Blayney Brown in Brown, Sarah Skinner and Ian Warrell, Coasting: Turner and Bonington on the Shores of the Channel, exhibition catalogue, Nottingham Castle 2008, p.19.
Wilton 1979, p.355 no.480, reproduced.
Ibid., p.396 no.826, reproduced.
See Wilton 1975, p.60.
This paragraph is informed principally by the account in Shanes 1990, pp.120–1; see also Shanes 1981, p.33, Warrell and Chumbley 1989, p.44, Warrell 1991, p.20, and Shanes 2000, p.155.
Ibid., p.121.
Joll 1989, p.59.
See Shanes 1981, p.33, Shanes 1990, p.121, Warrell 1991, p.20, Shanes 2000, p.155, and Brown 2007, p.14.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.229–31 no.377, pl.381 (colour).
See Weil 1978, pp.4–5.
Shanes 1997, p.28; see also Dhanes 2000, p.155.
See also Warrell 1991, p.20.

Matthew Imms
July 2016

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