Joseph Mallord William Turner

Vignette Study of Sky, Trees and Figures; for Campbell’s ‘Poetical Works’

c.1835–6

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

Artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Medium
Watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 229 x 257 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D27556
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 39

Catalogue entry

This watercolour sketch appears to show a mass of trees and perhaps some human figures beneath a tempestuous sky. Although it is too vague to be conclusively linked to any finished vignettes, the work appears to be one of a group of more than thirty studies in the Turner Bequest related to Turner’s illustrations for Thomas Campbell’s Poetical Works. It was once part of a parcel of studies described by John Ruskin as ‘A.B. 40. PO. Vignette beginnings, once on a roll. Worthless’.1 For an explanation of his meaning of ‘once on a roll’ see the technical notes above. Finberg records how Ruskin later described his phrasing in a letter to Ralph Nicholson Wornum as ‘horrible’, adding ‘I never meant it to be permanent’.2
Despite Ruskin’s ungenerous assessment, these studies provide important insight into Turner’s working processes for literary illustration. Unlike the finished vignettes, which are characterised by minute detail and fine brushwork, the preparatory sketches are painted on cheap, lightweight paper and executed in a rough, loose style. They appear to have been conceived as simple experimental sketches and often bear little or no relation to Turner’s finished vignette compositions.
1
Finberg 1909, vol.II, p.894.
2
Ibid., vol.I, p.xi.
Technical notes:
Peter Bower has noted that this study is made on off-white low-grade machine-made cartridge paper. The maker is unknown and there is no watermark. This paper would have been relatively cheap to buy and was inferior to standard drawing papers. It could have been purchased from a colourman and cut directly from a roll to the required size. Turner has used the ‘felt’ side of the sheet which has slightly more texture than the ‘wire’ side, allowing better adhesion of pigment and graphite to the surface of the sheet. Many of Turner’s vignette studies were made on a similar grade of machine-made paper, and the artist employed the ‘felt’ side on all of them.1
1
Bower 1999, p.59.
Verso:
Inscribed by ?Henry Scott Trimmer in brown ink ‘32 – Vignette beginnings – unstamped – | No 17 137x’ bottom centre left and initialled in pencil by Charles Lock Eastlake ‘C.L.E.’ and John Prescott Knight ‘J.P.K.’ bottom left
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘(39’ bottom left and by unknown hands in pencil ‘AB 40 P | O’ bottom right

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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