View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
The subject of this vignette combines landscape elements with a carefully composed still-life. Crabs, mussels and other examples of seafood appear underneath a large black cooking pot and a tripod of oars. The immediate foreground is dominated by a catch of bright red lobsters (apparently already cooked) resting in a wicker basket. In the background are the silhouettes of a number of sailing boats, presumably fishing vessels. The illustration belongs to a group of four finished designs that Turner produced for an unidentified project (see also Tate D27521; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 4, Tate D25465; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 342 and Tate D25466; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 343). The other designs retain a similar format and depict cod, sprats, plaice, and mackerel respectively. None of the watercolours were ever engraved for publication.
Although the theme, palette and style of the four vignettes suggest that they are related, the nature and circumstances of that connection has not yet been established. Turner possibly produced the series during the mid 1830s, at a time when he was renewing his interest in marine subjects.1 The group was recorded by Ruskin in the National Gallery Archive Schedule of 1854 as ‘Parcel 62’ and described as ‘containing 4 finished vignettes for Mr Bicknell’.2 Elhanan Bicknell (1788–1861) was a businessman who made his fortune in the Southern Sperm Whale fishery and became an important patron of Turner’s.3 He bought his first works by the artist in 1838 but is most famously remembered as commissioning at least two of the artist’s four late oil paintings of whaling subjects, Whalers 1845 (Tate, N00545) and Whalers (The Whale Ship) 1845 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).4 There is no further evidence however, of his involvement with these four fishing vignettes.
Jan Piggott has suggested that the four designs may have been intended to serve as chapter headings for an unidentified publication on deep-sea fishing, with each plate introducing a different type of catch.5 Stylistically, the designs also resemble Turner’s title vignettes for his Rivers of France series (1833–5) and may be related to that group of works.6 More recently, Ian Warrell has suggested that the series may be connected to an unrealised engraving project, The English Channel, or La Manche, a scheme on which Turner appears to have been working in 1827.7 According to an advertising prospectus this serialised publication was to combine topographical British and French coastal views with vignette illustrations and these four fanciful scenes of the bounty of the sea may have been intended to act as head- or tail-pieces to the individual sections. If this is the case, however, this means that the designs would pre-date those of Rogers’s Italy, Turner’s first sustained vignette project.
James Hamilton, Turner: The Late Seascapes, exhibition catalogue, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown 2003, p.115.
Quoted in Piggott 1993, p.90.
Evelyn Joll ‘Elhanan Bicknell’, in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, p.24.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, nos.414 and 415.
Jan Piggott, Turner’s Vignettes, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.90
Martin Butlin, Andrew Wilton and John Gage, Turner 1775–1851, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1974, p.120
Ian Warrell, ‘Another “Coast”!: Turner’s English Channel, or La Manche, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), Coasting: Turner and Bonington on the Shores of the Channel, exhibition catalogue, Nottingham Castle, Nottingham 2008, p.63.