Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study of Sea and Sky

c.1823–6

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

Medium
Watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 211 x 275 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D25479
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 356

Display caption

In the mid-1820s Turner worked on a set of twelve mezzotint plates, known as the Little Liber, or So-called Sequels to the Liber Studiorum. Relatively little is known about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the images, which all explore the dramatic effects of natural light.

At least half of subjects are concerned with direct observation of the sea. The watercolour studies on which the prints were based are unusually freely executed and unresolved. When painting for translation into black and white prints Turner usually provided a greater level of detail to guide the engravers.

Gallery label, July 2008

Catalogue entry

Engraved:
(see main catalogue text)
In acknowledging the identification of this strongly coloured sunrise or sunset as the design for the ‘Little Liber’ Study of Sea and Sky in the anonymous checklist for the Tate Gallery’s 1995 Sketching the Sky exhibition, Eric Shanes ascribes the publication to Ian Warrell.1 Andrew Wilton does not mention the present watercolour in relation to the ‘Little Liber’ in his catalogue of Turner’s watercolours, but he includes a (possibly spurious) entry for an untraced study which he suggests may once have been in the collection of J.E. Taylor.2
The composition was engraved in mezzotint,3 traditionally ascribed to Turner himself (see the ‘Little Liber’ introduction). The copper plate was one of those found in his studio after his death, and it is noted as having been sold in 1873 after Sir Francis Seymour Haden took a few impressions from it; it was subsequently reworked.4 It was presumably the plate of the same title in the 24 March 1873 Christie’s sale of prints from Turner’s studio5 (see the Introduction). The design exists in only two trial proof stages (or possibly two variant printings of the same stage), as described by Rawlinson and Dupret, who did not recognise this watercolour as the direct model for the composition.6 Tate’s impression (T05569) is a late nineteenth-century one.
As discussed in the introduction, this ‘Little Liber’ subject is possibly the one noted as ‘Sunrise’ among others listed inside the front cover of Turner’s Worcester and Shrewsbury sketchbook, in use in 1831 (Tate D41053; Turner Bequest CCXXXIX).
1
Shanes 1997, p.98.
2
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.390 no.775.
3
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908, p.cxi, and vol.II 1913, pp.211, 388–9 no.806.
4
See Rawlinson II 1913, p.389; and Marcel-Etienne Dupret, ‘Turner’s Little Liber, Turner Studies, vol.9, no.1, Summer 1989, p.42.
5
The First Portion of the Valuable Engravings from the Works of the Late J.M.W. Turner, R.A. ..., Christie, Manson & Woods, London 24 March 1873 (926).
6
See Rawlinson II 1913, p.389; and Dupret 1989, p.42.
Technical notes:
There are prominent folds parallel with the bottom edge. Curving pencil lines towards the top right are centred on the hidden sun at the centre, and there is a vertical zigzag pencil stroke at the lower centre indicating ripples or a reflection in the water.
Verso:
Blank; inscribed by ?John Ruskin in red ink ‘1270’ bottom left, inscribed by unknown hands in pencil ‘94’ ascending vertically towards centre right, and in pencil ‘CCLXIII . 356’ towards bottom centre; stamped ‘[Turner Bequest monogram] | CCLXIII – 356’ towards bottom left.

Matthew Imms
November 2011

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