Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Notes on Sunlight; with a Diagram


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

Pen and ink on paper
Support: 115 x 88 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CVIII 87

Catalogue entry

The whole page is taken up with the following notes, including a diagram towards the top:
Suppose over an iregular horizon or hill | on which a building [...] but one more | elevated than the rest
Here there is a diagram of a building against a wooded or cloudy horizon with dotted arcs in the sky above, numbered ‘2’ above the building and ‘1’ to its right. The notes continue:
immediatly opposite to which will suppose | a flat surface upon the upper part the | first appearance of the sun will show it <[?power]> | approach by color and a small increase of light | but which imperceptibly loses itself downwards | without any visible shadow of an object upon | that surface positivly defined any more | the indefinite shadow that common daylight | makes and a pole at [blank] yards would only | be marked where the ½ [overwriting ‘small’] part of the pole strikes | its positive power while the shadow of the | pole would be wholy blended in shade causd | on the same flat surface as yet not illumined
This passage follows on from the verso of this leaf (D07503), and continues on the opposite page, folio 86 verso (D07501) – where the diagram appears to be referred to again. It is part of a sequence beginning on folio 91 verso (D07511), and running back to folio 82 verso (D07493). John Gage has discussed these provisional notes (not developed in the perspective lectures) as an example of Turner’s close observation of natural phenomena,1 in this case the question of sunlight travelling in parallel lines or otherwise, responding to a chapter of The Art of Painting by Gérard de Lairesse (1640–1711), in the English translation by John Frederick Frisch (London 1738 and later editions).2 See under D07511 for a discussion of Lairesse’s text. Maurice Davies has registered Turner’s notes as ‘on light and shadow’, as part of a longer sequence running back to folio 72 verso (D07473).3
Gage has also mentioned this particular passage ‘on the development of a sunrise’, running back to folio 84 verso (D07497), in the context of Turner’s keen observations of light, weather and water, more commonly expressed visually in his sketches.4

Matthew Imms
June 2008

Gage 1969, p.252 note 217.
Ibid., p.178, as ‘TB CVIII, pp. 99a–82a’ (first folio actually 91a); see also Davies 1992, pp.51, 108 note 85.
Davies 1994, p.289.
See Gage 1987, pp.71–3, and 247 note 74.

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