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Three mezzotints, various papers and sizes, comprising three subjects out of a total of eleven or twelve (see also T05202)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: ...; Mrs R. Turner, from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Lit: Christopher White, English Landscape 1630–1850, exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven 1977; Richard Godfrey, Printmaking in Britain: A General History from its Beginnings to the Present Day, 1978; Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Yale Center for British Art and British Museum, 1980–1; J.M.W. Turner, exh. cat., Grand Palais, Paris 1983; Marcel-Etienne Dupret, ‘Turner's “Little Liber”’, Turner Studies, vol.9, no.1, Summer 1989, pp.32–47; Ian Warrell, Turner: The Fourth Decade: Watercolours 1820–30, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1991
The eleven or twelve subjects with Turner engraved himself for the ‘Little Liber’ series in the 1820s are today considered his most original contribution to printmaking, and indeed some of the finest examples produced by any artist during the Romantic period (see Godfrey 1978, p.82). They are highly personal works, characterised by the extraordinary vigour and freedom of their execution. Yet because they were never published in Turner's lifetime, their origin and purpose remain obscure.
The prints undoubtedly form a group, being related to each other by subject matter, handling and date, although they were probably never conceived together as a whole (Dupret 1989, p.33). Writing in 1908, Rawlinson believed that ‘they may possibly have started as a series of studies of effects of moonlight under various conditions of weather, atmosphere, and surroundings’ (I 1908, p.xliv) but by 1913 he had abandoned this idea (II 1913, p.385). In fact the subjects can be linked together in so far as they all show dramatically lit night or storm scenes, which in their strongly contrasted tones are ideally suited to the mezzotint medium. The title of the series reflects its status rather than its content, for it was clearly started at some point after Turner had abandoned the Liber Studiorum on his return from Italy in 1819; and in some ways it can be regarded as a sort of sequel to the Liber, since some of the later unpublished subjects for that series scraped by Turner himself do seem to anticipate the ‘Little Liber’ plates both in subject matter and handling - although the latter have a much greater expressive power (see Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.58).
Most of the ‘Little Liber’ prints are based on broadly handled colour sketches, rather than the more detailed preliminary designs with which Turner usually supplied the engraver. Indeed, these colour studies seem to have functioned more as starting points than as preparatory studies, since the prints were often elaborated with further details lacking in the original designs - for example, a second temple was added to ‘Paestum’ (T 04914), and Mount Etna was added to the distance of ‘Catania’ (see T 05202). Indeed, Turner's involvement in this series seems to have had an important reciprocal role to play in relation to his development as a colourist in the later 1820s and early 1830s. Andrew Wilton, for example, argues that scraping the ‘Little Liber’ prints gave Turner the insight fully to exploit the engraving process by forcing the engravers genuinely to ‘translate’ (that is find new equivalents in a different language for) his work, rather than simply to copy a design that lent itself easily to reinstatement in line; and hence the artist's ‘almost exaggerated’ stress on colour in some of his subsequent designs for engraved series, such as the ‘Rivers of Europe’ or late vignette designs (Wilton 1979, p.169).
On stylistic and circumstantial grounds, both watercolours and prints are usually dated to the mid-1820s. For some of the plates for the series (Rawlinson II 1913, nos.799, 801–3, 807–8) were engraved on steel, which was not adopted for printmaking until 1820 and very little used before the mid-1820s (see Basil Hunnisett, Steel-Engraved Book Illustration in England, 1980, pp.12–15). Moreover, in the mid-1820s Turner was working on two series, The Rivers of England and Marine Views, in close collaboration with the engraver Thomas Lupton who had pioneered the use of steel plates only two or three years before, winning the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts in 1822 for his success with a soft steel plate (see After J.M.W. Turner, T 04790–04819 below); indeed, a plate such as ‘Eddystone Lighthouse’ (see T 04820), a stormy nocturnal scene engraved by Lupton in mezzotint on steel in 1824 for Marine Views and notable for its rich contrasts of darks and lights, in many ways anticipates the ‘Little Liber’ plates.
It has also been suggested that the publication by Hurst Robinson and Co. on 2 January 1826 of F.C. Lewis's mezzotint after Francis Danby's painting ‘Sunset at Sea after a Storm’ (the oil is repr. in F. Greenacre, Francis Danby 1793–1861, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1988, p.48) may have partly inspired Turner to embark on the ‘Little Liber’, since two of the plates in the series, ‘Shields Lighthouse’ (T 04915) and ‘The Evening Gun’ (Rawlinson II 1913, no.800), bear a striking resemblance to this image. The plate was advertised as one of the ‘NEW PRINTS, just published, and to be had of W.B. Cooke, Soho Square’ in May 1826 - and since Cooke was still publishing many of Turner's prints at this date, it seems most unlikely that Turner would have been unfamiliar with his stock. For all these reasons Luke Herrmann's suggestion that ‘Turner began the “Little Liber” plates soon after his return from Italy in January 1820’ seems to have little basis in fact (1990, p.148). Few impressions were taken of the ‘Little Liber’ prints in Turner's lifetime and they are now extremely rare (for the whereabouts of these, see Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.58). Most of the plates for the series, of copper and steel, were found in Turner's house on his death in 1851, although all but two of the steel plates had badly corroded. Nevertheless, in the second half of the nineteenth century various further impressions were taken from the plates, some just before the Turner sales in 1873–4, and others after the plates had been dispersed. In the catalogue to an Exhibition of the Liber Studiorum...and of a Few Engravings after his Drawings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1904, Francis Bullard writing about the ‘Little Liber’ quotes from a letter written to him by Rawlinson dated 5 October 1902:
Then before the great Turner sale of all the prints and copper and steel plates found at Queen Anne Street, which was held in 1873, Sir Seymour Haden took off impressions of each of these for the executors, printing them partly in black and partly in brown ink, - Turner's were all in black ink. The various copperplates (and I fancy one or two steel) were sold to various dealers, who commenced printing from them. Unfortunately at that time the art of mezzotint printing had entirely lapsed, and no printer understood anything at all about the proper handling of the plates, and although Delâtre of Paris tried them, he was equally at sea, and not a single even decent impression was obtained; but the plates were simply wrecked by ignorant hands, and are now quite worthless.
All four impressions of the ‘Little Liber’ prints catalogued below, T04914-T04916 and T05202, are late nineteenth-century impressions: the first three are printed in black ink and taken from steel plates which had badly corroded, while T05202, ‘Catania’, is printed in brown ink from one of the copper plates in the series which survived in good condition. Although these impressions do not, of course, boast the quality of contemporary impressions printed by Turner himself, they are nevertheless a vital historical record of one of the most important and personal of all the engraving projects on which the artist embarked. The titles are those given in Rawlinson, since Turner left no indication of titles other than a rather cursory (and by no means comprehensive) list in the cover of the ‘Worcester and Shrewsbury’ sketchbook (TB CCXXXIX). However, in the case of ‘Bridge and Monument’ (see under T04916), Rawlinson's title is almost certainly inaccurate.
During the biennium 1988–90 the Gallery acquired a further four subjects from the series, three by purchase (T05569-T05571, ‘Study of Sea and Sky’, ‘Ship and Cutter’ and ‘Gloucester Cathedral’), and one by transfer from the British Museum (T05726, ‘Ship in a Storm’); it also acquired a second impression of ‘Catania’ printed in black ink (T05568). These later acquisitions, listed in Tate Report: Tate Gallery Biennial Report 1988–90, p.69, bring the Tate's current holdings of subjects in the series to eight out of a possible total of twelve, although Dupret (1989, p.46) and the present compiler both believe that the more likely total of subjects is eleven - given that Rawlinson's twelfth subject, ‘The Medway: Thunderstorm with Rainbow’ (Rawlinson II 1913, no.809a), seems more likely to be connected with The Rivers of England than the ‘Little Liber’.
T04915 Shields Lighthouse
Mezzotint 150 × 211 (5 15/16 × 8 5/16) on India paper laid on wove paper 337 × 450 (13 3/8 × 7 13/16); plate-mark 186 × 250 (7 3/8 × 9 7/8)
Lit: Rawlinson II 1913, no.801, late nineteeth-century impression printed in black ink
Rawlinson records that the steel plate for this subject was found in Turner's house at his death, completely corroded. This impression was presumably taken by Turner's executors for documentary purposes; in its overall greyness, it gives little indication of the astonishing tonal richness of contemporary impressions taken by the artist himself, for example the impression of engraver's proof ‘c’ lent by the British Museum to the exhibition Colour into Line at the Tate Gallery in 1989–90 (no.50); the evolution of the print is discussed under the relevant entry in that catalogue. Related watercolour: Tate Gallery, TB CCLXIII 308 (Wilton 1979, no.771; repr. in col., Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.17).
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996