Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory

1806–8

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1708 x 2388 mm
frame: 2181 x 2860 x 190 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
N00480

Display caption

Turner made close observation of the ships shown here, but the painting of the battle in which Admiral Nelson died is not simply detailed reportage. Sails and cannon smoke arrest the eye, creating a claustrophobic backdrop, while the action appears to thrust outwards. The viewer is confronted by both the chaos of battle and the intimate tragedy of Nelson’s final moments. A contemporary reviewer termed this a ‘British epic picture...the first picture of the kind that has ever...been exhibited’.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

58. [N00480] The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory Exh. 1806; reworked 1808

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (480)
Canvas, 67 1/4 × 94 (171 × 239)
Signed ‘J M W Turner’ incised on bulwark bottom centre. (Plate 564)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (3, ‘Death of Nelson’ 7'10" × 5'8"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. Turner's gallery 1806; B.I. 1808 (359); Tate Gallery 1931 (25); R.A. 1974–5 (84, repr.); on loan to the National Maritime Museum 1975–80.

Lit. Farington Diary 3 June 1806; Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, p. 170); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 291; 1877, p. 428; Eastlake 1895, i, p. 189; Bell 1901, p. 86 no. 112; Armstrong 1902, p. 233; Finberg 1910, pp. 53–4; MacColl 1920, p. 7; Davies 1946, p. 185; Clare 1951, pp. 38–40, repr. p. 43; Finberg 1961, pp. 121, 125, 141–2, 171, 414, 467 no. 99, 468 no. 112, pl. 12; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 30, pl. 31; Reynolds 1969, p. 66, pl. 46; Gaunt 1971, p. 9; Finley 1981, pp. 56–7, pl. 26.

The Battle of Trafalgar took place on 21 October 1805 and the Victory, bearing Nelson's body, anchored off Sheerness on 22 December. Turner made a special trip to sketch the Victory as she entered the Medway and subsequently made a large number of detailed studies on board the ship in the ‘Nelson’ sketchbook (LXXXIX). There are also two larger studies of the deck of the Victory in the British Museum (CXX-c, and the Vaughan Bequest CXXI-S, repr. exh. cat. R.A. 1974, p. 60 no. 96).

Farington recorded on 3 June 1806 that ‘Turner's I went to and saw His picture of the Battle of Trafalgar. It appeared to me to be a very crude, unfinished performance, the figures miserably bad.’

Perhaps because he had been so keen to show the picture as soon as possible after the event Turner seems to have felt the need to work on it further before exhibiting it again in 1808. According to the writer, probably John Landseer, of a long review in the Review of Publications of Art for 1808, ‘The picture appears more powerful both in respect of chiaroscuro and colour than when we formerly saw it in Mr. Turner's gallery, and has evidently been since revised and very much improved by the author’. Describing the picture as ‘a British epic picture’ the writer called it ‘the first picture of the kind that has ever, to our knowledge, been exhibited’. ‘Mr. Turner ... has detailed the death of his hero, while he has suggested the whole of a great naval victory, which we believe has never before been successfully accomplished, if it has been before attempted, in a single picture.’

This picture was priced at £400 in a note, probably of c. 1810, in Turner's ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII–36; for the date see Nos. 53 and 56 [N00474]).


Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984