View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Technique and condition
This key, done after the painting was completed since it is too abbreviated to have been a stage in the painting process, is annotated with the names of the principal protagonists who feature in The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory of 1806–8 (Tate N00480). These are mainly naval officers: only those closest to the dying Admiral Nelson, and those still directing the course of the battle, are sketched. Most of the common sailors who crowd the deck in the painting are not even indicated by shading.
Wove paper, presumably white but with a greyish buff wash applied to the dry sheet with little attempt to make it lie evenly, forms a background colour not too dissimilar to that of the wooden deck surrounded by thick grey smoke from the ship’s cannon, in the painting. The uneven wash was created by mixing black with Indian red and yellow ochre, or similar shades of earth pigment. The unevenness may well be intentional, to suggest smoke. Turner was entirely capable of producing an even wash or a graded wash on any paper that could be wetted thoroughly, and indeed he often did this to commence a sky, or to differentiate sky and sea. (The most compelling reason not to soak paper is when it is bound into a sketchbook at the time.) The men were sketched in outline with iron gall ink, in the poses seen in the painting, and each is numbered in red ‘ink’. Red washes for the officers’ uniforms, blue washes for the sailors’ navy jackets, and a few grey washes made from black pigment only for the officers’ hats, were added within the outlines. Probably it took only a minute or so to apply each colour, using a single brush-load of paint. The key to the officers’ names is written below in two columns, in the same iron gall ink used for sketching the men. This has turned brown with age, but would have been black when applied and dried. After naming number sixteen of them, Turner ran out of paper, and continued the writing above the sketch.
The paper has been displayed with a window mount that covered these top lines of writing, as well as similarly large margins on the other three sides, clipping off the numbers in the left column. There is very considerable light damage in the central portion, which has made the paper turn brown, and has faded some of the writing almost to illegibility. The top lines look extremely faded also: therefore the whole sheet must been exposed to more light, without any window mount, as well. A sheet of grey-buff paper would have darkened even more, and left the brown writing quite impossible to read against it. The red washes are likely to be vermilion, which can withstand a great deal of light exposure. The red ‘ink’ has survived very well, and may indeed be made from vermilion in gum water, just like the red ‘ink’ that Turner would use in his late Swiss watercolours on many occasions. The sailors’ navy jackets have probably lost colour, since now they look pale and muddy. Prussian blue would have been a more suitable pigment to depict ‘navy blue’ than indigo: both would be expected to fade when given such obvious exposure to light, but indigo might not have survived at all in the circumstances. There may have been washes of yellow ochre for the sailors’ breeches, but it is not easy to be certain of this against the yellow/brown paper, even though this is a pigment not subject to fading.
This sheet was kept, as Finberg described, in another ‘endorsed by Mr. [John] Ruskin – “Trafalgar. (Original key-sketch for the Exhibition?.) Out of Rubbish heap at bottom of Box H. J.R., 1878”’. Ruskin guessed that it was intended for visitors to Turner’s Gallery in 1806, as a key to his picture Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (Tate, N00480) then exhibited there.1 It numbers and names the principal characters in the picture, who are also roughly sketched in colour. Finberg stated that there was a description of the whole subject of the picture on the reverse. If so key and description must have been mounted on both sides of another sheet or mount, or have formed halves of the same sheet folded, as the description is now mounted beneath the key (as Tate D08267).
The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) resulted in a British victory over the combined fleets of France and Spain but also in the death of Lord Nelson. At a critical point in the battle, walking the quarterdeck of his flagship Victory, he was struck by a shot from a French marksman in the mizzen top of the French ship Redoutable which was positioned to starboard. Turner’s picture shows the moment Nelson fell, the officers and men who rushed to support him, and other incidents including the wounded Lieutenant Pasco, Nelson’s flag-lieutenant, being carried from the poop deck by the port gangway in the context of the surrounding narrative of the battle. The composition, content and details were developed from sketches and notes made off Sheerness when the Victory returned; see the Nelson sketchbook (Tate D05446–D05490; D40701–D40705; D41427; Turner Bequest LXXXIX) and larger views of the ship’s deck looking to the bow and stern (Tate D08243; Turner Bequest CXX c, D08275; Turner Bequest CXXI S).
Both key and description were badly damaged and left largely illegible by the Thames flood which struck Turner Bequest works on paper in the stores of the Tate Gallery in 1928. Perhaps as a result, they were not mentioned in Butlin and Joll’s catalogue entry for the 1806 picture. However, most of the image and inscriptions were revealed by ultra-violet scanning prior to the 1989 Tate exhibition, permitting the readings first published by Upstone and repeated here (with slight changes). Even allowing for damage, the sketch and texts seem hasty and improvised. Possibly they were only drafts or work in progress; the picture itself may have been unfinished when shown in 1806 and was reworked in 1808.2 Another possibility might be that Turner was planning an engraved key, to be published if the picture was more enthusiastically received than it actually was.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London1984, pp.46–7 no.58 (pl.68)
For Joseph Farington’s comment that it was ‘a very crude, unfinished performance’ see Butlin and Joll 1984, p.46
Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London 1986, pp.220–2 no.108
As described by West to Watkins French, 17 February 1806; in von Erffa and Staley 1986, p.220 note 1
John D. Clarke, The Men of HMS Victory at Trafalgar including The Muster Roll, Casualties, Rewards and Medals, Uckfield 1999, pp.27–50
- work and occupations(14,303)
- symbols & personifications(7,229)