Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Disaster at Sea


Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1714 × 2203 mm
frame: 2190 × 2685 × 173 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This canvas was never exhibited and is probably unfinished, but remains one of Turner's most powerful statements on the Romantic theme of maritime disaster. Its pyramidal composition leaves little doubt that Turner had seen Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (now in the Louvre, Paris) described by one critic as ‘this tremendous picture of human sufferings’, when it was exhibited in London in 1822. Turner's own subject is the wreck of the Amphitrite off Boulogne in 1833. The ship's captain abandoned his cargo of female convicts, claiming that he was only authorised to land them in New South Wales.

Gallery label, March 2010

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Catalogue entry

[from] Nos. 453–86: Late Unfinished Sea Pieces, c. 1830–45

THERE are two main problems about this group of works. The first is the question of dating: the dates adopted here are highly tentative and are based on the supposition that there is a logical progression from a more substantial, three-dimensional style to one that is more impressionistic and less solid, together with a feeling that Turner's colouring was perhaps at its strongest from the early to the mid 1830s. However, as will be noted, the compilers do not always agree on even the tentative datings given here. In any case, what may look like a less three-dimensional picture may in fact be merely a less finished picture.

The second problem is that of provenance and authenticity, in particular as it concerns smaller pictures outside the Turner Bequest, Nos. 474–84, together with the somewhat similar works no longer accepted as genuine, Nos. 555–8. That some such unfinished works escaped the Turner Bequest is certain, and a foundation is provided by those works that can be definitely or tentatively traced to John Pound, the son by her first marriage of Mrs Booth, Turner's mistress and housekeeper. In reviews of our first edition, exception was taken to some of our attributions by Luke Herrmann (Nos. 475, 478 and 484) and Jerrold Ziff (Nos. 480 and 481); interestingly, they do not agree. Of the works they doubt, No. 478 seems definitely to have been in the Pound sale at Christie's in 1865, while Nos. 480, 481 and 484 bear labels or are said to come from the Pound family.

However, one should never let an apparently sound provenance stand in the way of one's judgment based on the visual evidence, and in this case there is one further element, the fact that, from 1848, for apparently the only time in his life, Turner employed an assistant, Francis Sherrell. According to Bernard Falk (1938, p. 213), whose reference is based on an obituary in the Isle of Thanet Gazette for 23 September 1916, Turner gave Sherrell lessons in return for various services such as stretching his canvases and running errands; John Gage (1969, p. 171) suggests that Sherrell may also have cleaned some of the pictures in Turner's studio at the instigation of the dealer Thomas Griffith, who was active in trying to obtain sales for Turner at this time. Nothing further seems to be known about Sherrell save that he died at Thanet in 1916. It is perhaps an unworthy suspicion to suggest that he, more than anybody else, would have been in a position to imitate Turner's late style and that such imitations could have been left in Turner's studio and acquired by the Pound family.

Another suspicious circumstance is that, although Turner tended to work on standard sizes of canvas, only a few of those of this group of pictures that are outside the Turner Bequest can be matched with works in the Bequest: No. 472, near enough Turner's standard three feet by four feet; No. 474, much the same size as Nos. 457 [N02881] and 458 [N02882]; Nos. 475, 482, and 556a, close to No. 459 [N05495]; and Nos. 483 and 484, the same size as Nos. 485 [D36675] and 486.

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 62; Herrmann 1978, p. 773; Wilton 1979, p. 224; Ziff 1980, p. 167.

460. [N00558] Fire at Sea c. 1835


Canvas, 67 1/2 × 86 3/4 (171·5 × 220·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (254, ‘1 (Fire at Sea)’ 7'3 3/4 × 5'8 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910, returned to the National Gallery 1956, and to the Tate Gallery 1968.

Exh. New York, Chicago and Toronto 1946–7 (53, pl. 44); R.A. 1974–5 (496).

Lit. Ruskin 1860 (1903–12, vii, p. 246 n.); ?Thornbury 1862, i, p. 325; ?1877, p. 451; Armstrong 1902, p. 229; MacColl 1920, p. 27; Davies 1946, p. 190; Clark 1949, pp. 108–9, pl. 86; Rothenstein 1949, p. 20, colour pl. 11; Davies 1959, p. 100; Herrmann 1963, p. 32, pl. 16; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 19, 52–3; Lindsay 1966, p. 162, 179, 249 n.48; Brill 1969, p. 19, repr.; Gaunt 1971, p. 8, colour pl. 29; Herrmann 1975, pp. 43, 233, colour pl. 144; Fehl 1976, pp. 127–8, pl. 20; Storch 1978, pp. 199– 201; Wilton 1979, p. 218.

Despite its relatively ‘unfinished’ state this was given an inventory number immediately on entering the National Gallery in 1856, like the works exhibited in Turner's lifetime. Thornbury probably refers to this picture when he speaks of Turner ‘studying a burning ship at sunset (unfinished oil picture)’. There are three sketches of a ship on fire in the ‘Fire at Sea’ sketchbook, dated by Finberg c. 1834 (CCLXXXII-3, 4 and 5) and the painting probably also dates from about this time as is suggested by MacColl in his remarkably specific ‘painted about 1834’; it may well have reflected Turner's renewed interest in fire subjects following the burning of the Houses of Parliament in October 1834 (see Nos. 359 and 364). Ruskin suggests that the picture ‘has had its distance destroyed’ by the loss of its upper glazes through cleaning in the same way as Hero and Leander (No. 370 [N00521]). Certainly there are many small losses as a result of the cleavage between the paint layers, but Ruskin's fears seem, as usual, to have been exaggerated.

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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