Following Turner’s death in 1851, more than 500 unexhibited oil paintings and thousands of watercolours and sketches were found in his studio. This picture – which, like these others, would not have been considered sufficiently ‘finished’ for public display – was among them, and it has become an icon of his late work.
Art historian Will Vaughan:
‘Norham Castle Sunrise is based on a place he’d visited over 40 years before in 1797, and one can see this castle in the north of England – you can see it silhouetted in blue in the middle of the picture – but he has, so to speak, taken this theme which he knew from his sketches as well as from his memories, and he’s created this kind of poem of light out of it ...And one of the interesting things about this picture is it raises the whole question of Turner’s unexhibited pictures. Turner in the last part of his life was quite an isolated figure; many of his contemporaries thought his last pictures were so strange that he must have gone mad. He was, it is true, defended by John Ruskin, the up-and-coming art critic, but even Ruskin felt that the very last pictures showed weakness of mind, and I think it’s significant that Ruskin himself obviously didn’t think that this particular picture was a painting because he didn’t include it in his catalogue of Turner’s works. One issue I think that’s interesting for us, is what are these pictures? What were they intended to be? Turner didn’t exhibit them, and in fact this particular picture was not exhibited until 1905, at a time when Impressionism, which had made people more aware of beautiful effects of atmosphere, made people more prepared to accept the pictures that Turner couldn’t, perhaps, exhibit in his own lifetime as real pictures. Now some people would say that means they’re not real pictures, that they’re just studies and sketches that Turner made. I myself think they are. He begins his pictures in the last part of his life by thinking in terms of colour harmonies, atmospheric effects, and then he would gradually add detail. And sometimes when he added enough detail, he’d exhibit them. But really the heart of the picture is still there; it’s that beautiful balancing of tones which perhaps we are able to look at in a way that Turner’s contemporaries couldn’t, and we can perhaps appreciate in that sense more profoundly what Turner was really about’.