This etching in warm brown ink on medium weight off-white wove paper has been worked up by Turner with warm monochromatic washes of watercolour in a similarly warm brown tonal range. The visual effect is closer to an engraving with aquatint than to a watercolour sketch made for latter engraving, and Turner did not often experiment with this combination of techniques on the same sheet of paper. It is a relatively deep bite etching as seen by the raised ink on the recto and mirrored indentations on the verso. These marks form the outline, definition and depth of the images while the watercolour forms subtle and loose washes over the rest of the support.
Some materials analysis was carried out, using a tiny sample of paint and ink removed from heavy applications that run right out to the sides. The very heavy printing of the etched lines made it possible to lift a sliver of ink clear of a line, while leaving most of it behind on the paper. Such a microscopic sample of printing ink can be flattened out for characterisation of its binding medium by a technique know as Fourier transform infrared microscopy, which involves shining infrared light through the sample and comparing the results with those from known historical materials, or modern reconstructions of historical recipes for artists’ materials. This indicated that the printing ink is oil-based. There is no sign of the yellow staining that often surrounds oil paint applied with a brush: printing ink is more viscous and it is intended to dry fast to avoid just this problem – which means that its component materials cannot be identified reliably by eye. Turner habitually used additions of varnish to oil paint to create thick, gelled paints that would be capable of forming similar-looking printed lines, but here the choice of ink was entirely conventional for work with an etched copperplate.
The same tiny sample could be retrieved and placed in the sample chamber of a scanning electron microscope in the path of a beam of electrons, which are scattered off the sample in a technique called energy-dispersive X-ray analysis, that leads to information on the elements used in the pigments and other components of the ink. Here it can be inferred that bone black (calcium phosphate) and umber (an iron-based earth pigment with manganese oxide incorporated) were used, which is the simplest possible mixture that would create a deep warm brown ink. Printers would mix ink from a range of earth pigments including ochres and umbers, blacks, and bright red vermilion to give warmth: all of these constituents have been found by analysing a small number of other suitable etchings and engravings which belong to the Liber Studiorum as does this work.
Turner matched the warm brown washes to the ink by eye, and thereby also selected umber to use with gum water as confirmed by similar analysis. He first sketched some cloud outlines very lightly in graphite pencil, then worked on very wet paper to paint the soft clouds freely round the sketch lines. The immediate foreground was painted freely and directly onto wetted paper. The careful infilling of the headland, castle, and some of the sails would have been done on slightly drier paper, the better to control the outline and keep it within the lightly etched outline as the paper dried. Painting onto dry paper would have given an additional hard outline to each wash, very difficult to line up exactly with the printed lines. The printed ink was not harmed by the painting process, done very quickly and lightly for the foreground figures to avoid disturbing the water-resistant ink, which would nonetheless crack if its surrounding paper was soaked and then worked severely. The drying of the heavily-sized paper most suitable for printing is not very easy to control, but Turner was very well accustomed to working on similar paper over a period of years, and he would know how much working it could take without showing damage.
Turner has also abraded some of the watercolour areas, most notably in the sea area and on one of the sails, in order to provide some highlighting.
With the exception of some skinning (scraping off of paper fibres) on the verso from some previous conservation attempts this work is in good condition.
How to cite
Jo Gracey, 'Technique and Condition', April 2001, revised by Joyce Townsend, February 2011, in Matthew Imms, ‘Scene on the French Coast c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-scene-on-the-french-coast-r1131709, accessed 29 August 2015.