Joseph Mallord William Turner

Shields, on the River Tyne


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

Watercolour on paper
Support: 154 x 216 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII V

Technique and condition

This composition is painted on medium weight white wove paper. The paper was not heavily sized with glue, to judge by its response to paint application. The predominant blue tonality could suggest at first glance that a blue paper was used, but the key compositional element, the moon, could not have been painted with the same technique, had this been the case.
The study was begun with blue washes applied to soaked paper, for the sky, water, and the steep shore on the right. Most of the sky was worked while the paper was wet. Then moon was created by washing out a neat circle in the blue paint, using clean water, and thereafter leaving this area alone, so that further working and wetting of the paper would not disturb its crisp outline. The more distant sails were worked on fairly wet paper too, and probably with the brush angled towards the paper to apply broad, even sweeps of colour, with one brush-stroke creating each sail. Quite possibly, the foreground illuminated by the brazier was washed clear of paint at a later stage, over a larger and more diffuse area. This ensured that the red paint for the firelight would show in dramatic contrast against the brown paint for the ships, which is largely painted over existing blue washes after the paper had dried. The masts nearest to the viewer, and also the nearest figures, were painted over similarly washed-clear paper, after it had dried, so that they would have a crisper outline. In this image, control of the wetness of the paper is more important to the overall effect than the selection of brush size or the degree of loading of paint on the brush. Such control can only be achieved when the artist is very familiar with the absorbency of the paper, and the way it changes and increases each time the paper has been wetted with another brush-stroke. Turner used such white linen-based papers frequently, and generally bought them in large batches.1 He would have been very familiar with the changing response of its glue-sized surface to water.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Peter Bower, Turner’s Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1787–1820, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990.
Nicola Moorby and Ian Warrell eds., How to Paint like Turner, London 2010, pp.130–3.

Catalogue entry

In this moonlit nocturne Turner depicts keelmen shoveling coal from flat-bottomed barges into the hold of a collier brig. Coal was carried down the river Tyne by these vessels from the coalfields near Newcastle and processed by the Shields keelmen who worked through the night to meet the insatiable demand for the fuel. The rectangular North Shields lighthouse can be seen in the distance below the moon, and on the opposite bank, on the right, South Shields is identifiable by the ‘artificial hills formed by the cinders from the salt and glass works and the ballast discharged by the colliers’.1 Tyneside coal was a keystone of the national economy: by 1826, three years after this drawing was produced, of the two million tons of coal imported to London only 125,000 came from other domestic sources.2
‘Few rivers’, writes Barbara Hofland, ‘can boast such as union of picturesque beauty and commercial importance as the Tyne’.3 The sky is eerily lit with a full moon, projecting a beam of silvery light onto the river. Sombre circus and cumuli amass, encroaching on the moon, threatening to occlude it. The waters are still and rendered in a similar colour range to the sky: blues and greys heightened with white and pale yellow. At the right of the picture in brilliant vermilion and white, is the glow of a burning brazier of coal. The elemental rudiments of industry are represented here, harnessed and exploited: earth signified by coal, soot and salt, water by the Tyne, fire by the incineration of coal. The ‘arresting vitality born of this combustion’ and the cover of cool evening moonlight transforms these industrial activities into an embodiment of ‘the industrial sublime’.4 Ian Warrell also points out that the composition of this watercolour is much like one of Claude’s seaport views. This association, he writes, ‘lends a heroic stature to the men and women working amid the ruddy firelight, who replace Claude’s stock mythical figures’.5
According to art historian William Rodner, ‘Turner’s watercolour reveals much about the early coal business, particularly advances in transporting the material’ and the implied consequences of these innovations to the community of keelmen.6 The ‘laborious process of shovelling cargo by hand from the keel into the vessel’ was being streamlined by technological developments.7 As George Head observes that ‘the hardy race of keelmen’ were slowly, but inevitably, being ‘deprived of their ancient means of new appliances’ designed to improve efficiency and speed of transportation.8 One of these ‘new appliances’ is depicted in Turner’s watercolour at the top right: a wheeled container on a primitive railway link installed by the mines to take buckets of coal straight from the source to the riverbank.
Rodner 1997, p.99.
Hofland 1827, p.22, pl.18.
Rodner 1997, p.99 and Wilton 1980, p. 158, no.73 and p.169, no.86.
Warrell, Kelly and others 2007, p.109, no.69, reproduced in colour.
Ibid. pp.99–100.
George Head, A Home Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835, London 1835, p.344; quoted in Rodner 1997, p.100.
Warrell, Kelly and others 2007, p.109, no.69, reproduced in colour.
Warrell 1991, p.32, no.12 reproduced.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.191–2, no.360.
Gaunt and Hamlyn 1994, p.104, no.37.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

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