Turner virtually obscures the town with the depiction of river shipping. The fleet of craft includes a hay-carrying Thames barge and a prison hulk interspersed with sailboats, ketches, and other light craft. The striking angles in the isosceles form of the foreground sail is echoed in the background where rectilinear lines of ship masts and rigging and more triangular peaks of sails, some taut and some slack, give an impression of bustle and passage. The twelfth-century castle, looking ‘even more foursquare by comparison’, can be seen in the distance dominating the skyline atop a chalk cliff.2
On the left, cloaked in a heavy morning mist, is Rochester Cathedral. Founded by St Augustine in 604, the present Norman building dates from 1077.3 These features are bathed in pale pink and gold ethereal light; the gold colouration strengthening in the foreground to become the dominant hue for the shipping. Though these monuments offer picturesque and historic incident, it is clear that Turner’s focus here is life and labour on the Medway. The picture becomes markedly more focused in the foreground, Turner rendering the details of the hulk’s architecture, the rigging and mast of the barge in fine emboldened line. The reflections in the placid River Medway are rendered with acuity. As with all the drawings in this series, the colouring is rich and complex, comprised of layered stipples and hatches of complementary and contrasting tones to achieve a striking prismatic effect. This is particularly apparent in the rendering of the sky, river, and of the monuments in the background.
Turner made his first visit to Rochester in 1793, when he was eighteen, to produce his earliest recorded oil painting: a view of the town with fishermen drawing boats ashore in a gale. The location of this work has been untraceable since 1860.4 For Turner’s drawings of Rochester dating between 1793 and 1794, see Tate D00117, D00159, D00160; Turner Bequest VIII C, XV C, D. There is also a finished watercolour of 1795 depicting a panoramic view of the city (Manchester City Galleries).5 For other sketches and studies of Rochester see the River and Margate sketchbook of about 1805–9 (Tate D06447, D06449, D06450, D06480, D06482; Turner Bequest XCIX 29, 53a, 54, 69a, 70a). See also the Folkestone sketchbook of about 1821 (Tate D17217–D17219, D17223, D17303, D17304, D17342–D17346, D17350; Turner Bequest CXCVIII 6a, 7, 7a, 9a, 58a, 59, 79a–81a, 83a).
Warrell 1991, p.31, no.11 reproduced.
Shanes 1990, p.105, no.80 (colour).
Bryant 1996, p.34.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.18, no.21, as Rochester Castle with Fishermen drawing Boats in a Gale.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.313, no.129.