J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

Joseph Mallord William Turner Scene on the French Coast circa 1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Scene on the French Coast circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVI C
Pen and ink, pencil and watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 332 x 420 mm
Inscribed in pencil diagonally downwards ‘27’ top right, and ‘4’ bottom left
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom centre of composition
Stamped in black ‘CXVI C’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, published J.M.W. Turner, ?11 June 1807
The Liber Studiorum plate derived from the present drawing, the first to be published in Turner’s ‘Marine’ category, was untitled; the longstanding identification of the subject as a view of Flint Castle in North Wales appears to have originated with John Ruskin’s passing reference in The Harbours of England (1856),1 and the idea of the men as smugglers was also probably his.2 The profile of the castle does not match the one inscribed ‘Flint’ a few years earlier in Turner’s Dolbadarn sketchbook (Tate D02140; Turner Bequest XLVI 99). Finberg noted the earlier, variant titles relating to Flint in his catalogues3 but adopted the present wording from Turner’s own checklists (see below), though the Welsh connection has occasionally been made again since.4 The link seems to have originated by visual comparison with Turner’s 1830s views of Flint, both showing a distant, low castle on the coast with various beached boats, figures and horses (watercolours: National Museum Wales and private collection).5 Extrapolating from Finberg’s French identification, the distant building has been said to be the castle of Wimereux6 between Boulogne and Calais, although there are no identified sketches of the site dating from before the Liber; Turner introduced three slight pencil variations in the border below the design showing a skyline of sails and piers which Nicholas Alfrey has identified as Calais itself.7
However, such specific topographical speculation may be redundant, since in etching the design for the Liber Turner copied it straight onto the copper plate and the printed image was thus in reverse of the drawing, whereas he took care to account for this fundamental transposition in other plates when the location was intended to be identifiable.8 Again, in terms of the occupation of the men in the foreground, ‘there seems to be no definite pictorial evidence’9 of smuggling, and indeed Rawlinson declared that the ‘“riding officer” of the revenue ... will be observed superintending the landing of the stores from the boats.’10 Paul Spencer-Longhurst has noted compositional points in common with Turner’s painting The Sun Rising through Vapour (Barber Institute, Birmingham),11 possibly exhibited in 1809.
Finberg described the drawing as ‘careful and timid looking’12 and hence one of the earliest of the Liber designs made at W.F. Wells’s Knockholt cottage at the inception of the Liber project (see general introduction). However, he regarded it as ‘of singular interest, as the differences between this preliminary drawing and the published engraving are greater than any other Liber subject’ which, from the present ‘jejune and drawing-masterlike composition’ developed into ‘one of the most vigorous and impressive marine designs of the whole series.’13 There is also an impression of Turner’s etched outline in the Bequest (Tate D08105; Turner Bequest CXVI D), with tonal washes added by him as a guide for the engraver. At that stage, the main group of figures was made larger in proportion to the landscape, distant sails were added above, and most conspicuously the sails of a second boat were added behind the one beached in the foreground and the existing sail redrawn, strengthening the composition considerably. Finberg suggested that ‘an intermediate study was made. The changes, however, might very well have been made on the tracing-paper used to transfer the original design to the copper, and this would naturally have been destroyed as soon as it had been used.’14
The composition is recorded, as ‘1[:] 4 French Coast’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12156; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 23a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)15 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.16 It also appears later in the sketchbook, as ‘2 French Coast’, in a list of ‘Marine’ subjects (Tate D12164; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 27a).17
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Charles Turner, does not bear a publication date. It was issued to subscribers in part 1, probably on 11 June 180718 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.2–6;19 see also Tate D08102, D08103, D08105, D08106, D08110; Turner Bequest CXVI A, B, D, E, I). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00917) and the published engraving (A00918), as well as the washed etching noted above. It is the first of nine published Liber subjects in Turner’s ‘Marine’ category (see also Tate D08105, D08114, D08125, D08129, D08133, D08138; Turner Bequest CXVI D, M, X, CXVII B, F, K).
An unrelated poem was inscribed by Turner on the back of the present sheet (Tate D40141).
Cook and Wedderburn XIII 1904, p.41.
Ibid., p.609 (editors’ note).
Finberg 1909, I, p.315; 1924, p.13.
See Evelyn Joll in Gage, Ziff, Alfrey and others 1983, p.264; and Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.41 no.33.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, respectively p.401 no.868 and pp.403–4 no.885, both reproduced.
Wilton 1975, p.40.
Herrmann 1990, pp.35, 254 note 42.
See Forrester 1996, p.50.
Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.41.
Rawlinson 1906, p.17.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.68–9 no.95, pl.103; see Spencer-Longhurst 2003, p.49.
Finberg 1910, p.75; see also Finberg 1961, p.130.
Finberg 1910, p.76; see also Herrmann 1990, pp.35, 38.
Finberg 1910, p.76.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xxxii; Forrester 1996, p.12.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.9–19; 1906, pp.12–23; Finberg 1924, pp.5–24.
Technical Notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘1794 | J Whatman;1 it is now a warm, reddish yellow owing to light exposure. Two apparently different shades of wash are actually varying thicknesses of the same wash. Turner has tested the washes and made other experimental marks around the edges of the untrimmed sheet. The umber pigment gives an overall cool brown colour.2 There is a finger-print below the left-hand tower. With its spacious margins, the present sheet is the most conspicuous example of a handful of Liber designs not trimmed down to the image as engraved. It has been suggested that Turner worked with wide margins here (and perhaps on other sheets, subsequently trimmed to the image) to help visualise the ratio of the subsequent printed composition to its borders.3

Matthew Imms
August 2009

Forrester 1996, p.50 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Forrester 1996, p.15.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Scene on the French Coast c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, December 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-scene-on-the-french-coast-r1131707, accessed 20 April 2014.