Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Rocky Cliff


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and graphite on paper
Support: 340 × 480 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LVIII 58

Technique and condition

The composition was begun with light graphite pencil to sketch the cliff, on white wove Whatman paper that had previously been lightly washed over on both sides to give a pale greyish buff background. Graphite pencil provides both colour – through shading – and line throughout this composition. The brownish yellow highlights were applied in Indian yellow, which is normally brighter and clearer in tone. Such a limited range of materials is very practical, in terms of carrying and using them outdoors.
This sketch is related to a group of others with similar materials, known as the Scottish Pencils (Tate; Turner Bequest LVIII). Others in the group were covered by a window mount, and exposed to light for a considerable period, which led to fading of the greyish buff overall wash, and also darkened the paper to a pale brown. This gave a net shift in tonality from cool to warm. The present appearance of this sketch is very similar to these faded ones, though here there is no preserved border to give clear evidence for colour change. Such prolonged light exposure would however account for the curiously brown appearance of the Indian yellow highlights.
The artist and diarist Joseph Farington noted in 1802 that Turner ‘showed me his sketches made in Scotland. Those made with black lead pencil on white paper tinted with Indian ink and Tobacco water and touched with liquid white of his own preparing’. This description can be applied here, with the interpretation that Turner used the same type of paper, but omitted the washes of tobacco water and white gouache seen in others in the group. ‘Black lead pencil’ is in effect the graphite pencil familiar today, though Turner’s drawing material have been used in a holder that gripped a rod or fragment of material and permitted use right down to the end of the stump.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
February 2011

Catalogue entry


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