Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney

exhibited 1807

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on mahogany
Support: 549 × 778 mm
frame: 930 × 1148 × 150 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner was always ambitious to compete with fellow artists in all areas of art. The ecstatic reception given to the first painting David Wilkie showed at the Royal Academy, in 1806, encouraged Turner to show his skill at painting scenes of everyday life. He exhibited this picture at the Academy in the following year, where it hung next to Wilkie’s The Blind Fiddler, shown to the left.

Opinion was divided about who came off better in this competition. One observer said that Wilkie’s painting was ‘flung into eclipse’ by the brighter colouring of Turner’s work.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

68. [N00478] A Country Blacksmith disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price charged to the Butcher for shoeing his Poney Exh. 1807

Oil, 21 5/8 × 30 5/8 (55 × 78), on pine 22 5/8 × 31 5/8 (57·5 × 80·5)
Signed ‘J M W Turner RA’ lower left

Coll. Bought 1808 by Sir John Leicester, Bt, later first Lord de Tabley, sold Christie's 7 July 1827 (14) bought Turner; Turner Bequest 1856 (46, ‘Blacksmiths Shop’ 2'6 1/2" × 1'10"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1807 (135); Sir John Leicester's gallery 1819 and subsequent years (19); Tate Gallery 1931 (27); R.A. 1974–5 (133, repr.).

Lit. Farington Diary 7 April, 8 May, 11 May, 2 June and 19 June 1807; Carey 1819, pp. 56–7 no. 19; Young 1821, p. 9 no. 19 engr.; Allan Cunningham, Life of Wilkie 1843, i, pp. 143–4; Cunningham 1852, pp. 24–5; Ruskin 1857 and 18572 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 156, 274–5 n.); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 289; 1877, pp. 425–6; Bell 1901, p. 84 no. 109; Armstrong 1902, p. 218; MacColl 1920, p. 6; Whitley 1928, pp. 120–21, repr.; Falk 1938, pp. 83–4; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clare 1951, pp. 36–7, pl. 38; Finberg 1961, pp. 134–6, 302, 468 no. 110, 478 no. 204, pl. 10; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 20, pl. 29; Lindsay 1966, p. 100; Gage 1969, p. 243 n. 95; Reynolds 1969, pp. 62–4, pl. 43; Herrmann 1975, pp. 19, 228–9, pl. 52; Wilton 1979, p. 123; Chubb 19812, p. 34, pl. 15; Marks 1981, pp. 334–9, 344, pl. 4.

In this picture Turner was almost certainly inspired by the success of the young David Wilkie, ten years his junior, with his first exhibit at the R.A. the year before, Village Politicians, which is also in the Teniers manner. In 1807 Wilkie exhibited The Blind Fiddler (Tate Gallery; repr. illustrated souvenir David Wilkie R.A. 1958, pl. 5), also an interior.

According to Wilkie's biographer, Allan Cunningham, The Blind Fiddler was ‘flung into eclipse by the unmitigated splendour of a neighbouring picture, hung for that purpose beside it, as some averred, and painted into its overpowering brightness, as others more bitterly said in the varnishing time which belongs to academicians between the day when the pictures are sent in, and that on which the Exhibition opens’. Allan Cunningham's son Peter, in his memoir of Turner (1852, loc. cit.), describes A Country Blacksmith and Sun Rising through Vapour (No. 69) as ‘two pictures which “killed” every picture within range of their effects’ and adds that it was these pictures that damaged The Blind Fiddler: ‘on the varnishing day set apart to the privileged body to which he belonged, Turner it is said, reddened his sun and blew the bellows of his art on his blacksmith's forge’. Although it is difficult to see that Turner acted as here described, there is a possibility that he altered Sun Rising through Vapour, q.v.

Farington, apparently reporting Westall, who had seen the picture on 7 April 1807, noted that the ‘small picture of the inside of a Farrier's Shop, is a very clever picture’. On 2 June he notes Marchi's opinion that ‘Turner's Forge’ was ‘flimsy’. However Jameson told Farington on 11 May that he admired Turner's ‘Forge, which he thought finer colouring than the picture by Wilkie-warmer’, and Smirke told him on 19 June that he thought the picture ‘excellent’.

There is a sketch of a horse being shod, in the same pose but involving the other leg, in the ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII-9; repr. Chubb loc. cit., pl. 14). Derek Chittock (verbal communication to Evelyn Joll) has pointed out that there was a blacksmith's forge just by W.F. Well's cottage at Knockholt, on which this picture may have been based.

The St. James Chronicle for 9–12 May described the picture as displaying a ‘Considerable share of humour. The attitudes of the disputants are highly natural’. On the other hand the Monthly Magazine, 1 June, felt that the full title was ‘rather too much to express in picture, nor is it reasonable to expect that such a story should be clearly told on canvas.’ Nevertheless, according to the Cabinet or Monthly Report of Polite Literature for February–June, ‘In this picture, art is certainly carried to a very considerable extent; to succeed in rendering such a scene so highly picturesque, must be attended with no little difficulty. There is a great variety of appropriate forms managed with infinite skill; and had the characters and expressions been sufficiently defined and varied to be equal to the colouring and effect, we should have pronounced it a perfect work.’

On 8 May Farington recorded that Sir George Beaumont ‘sd. Sir John Leicester had told him that He had asked Turner the price of His picture of a Forge. Turner answered that He understood Wilkie was to have 100 guineas for His Blind Fiddler & He should not rate His picture at a less price.’ Turner, as his receipt of 9 January 1808 shows, got his price. The painting returned to Turner's possession in 1827 when he bought it back for 140 guineas at the sale following the death of Sir John Leicester, later 1st Lord de Tabley.

There are a number of drawings of figures engaged in various indoor activities in the ‘Hesperides (I)’ sketchbook of c. 1805–7, one being used for this picture (XCIII-22 verso). A rebate round the edge shows that the picture was finished in its frame.

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


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