Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Steamer and a Sailing Ship off the Coast in a Storm


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 256 x 280 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 147

Display caption

Steamships are a recurring feature of Turner’s imagery. They appear as details in many of his paintings of coastal scenery and rivers. Here, as in the large painting Snow Storm shown on the wall to your left, the steamship is at the centre of the composition. It is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the surrounding sea, and almost absorbed by the blinding light Turner conjures.  The ship might be interpreted as a symbol of the futility of man’s efforts in the face of such forces.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Although the setting of this dramatic evocation of ships in heavy weather was identified in 1995 as Portsmouth,1 there seems little in the vaguely defined distant shoreline (with a square ochre form perhaps representing a castle or other large building) to connect the scene with the Hampshire port in particular. See the Introduction to the London Bridge and Portsmouth sketchbook of about (Tate; Turner Bequest CCVI) in the ‘Thames, London and South of England 1821–7’ section for details of Turner’s visits to the area and various finished watercolours set in the Solent at the mouth of the harbour.
The pale band over the sea at the right may represent chalk cliffs at some other point on the South Coast of England; Eric Shanes has connected the scene to Brighton, without further comment.2 The setting is secondary to the vessels beset by the elements. Although the belching steamer is the focus, there is also a ship with billowing sails passing beyond, and rough indications of at least one small open boat in the foreground, with blue and white stripes apparently marking the jersey of one of the somewhat exposed crew.
Noting that Finberg had placed this sheet at a relatively late date,3 Andrew Wilton observed ‘certain affinities’ with late seascapes such as the dynamic painting Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, exhibited in 1842 (Tate N00530),4 albeit suggesting closer links with marine watercolours of the 1820s including studies for the Ports of England series (see Alice Rylance-Watson’s ‘Ports of England c.1822–8’ section), which ‘employ the same range of greys and greens’.5
Whether coincidentally or not, the dimensions of this unusually squarish sheet correspond with some of those in the Turner Bequest and elsewhere used by Turner on his 1836 tour of the Val d’Aosta; compare for example Tate D25439, D35887 and D35964 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 316, CCCLXIV 47, 121), which share a relatively muted palette and loose handling.6 In view of the range of opinions and suggestions, a range date covering the 1820s and 1830s has been applied here.
See Sketching the Sky, exhibition catalogue 1995, p.[7].
See Shanes 1997, p.94.
See Finberg 1909, II, p.1186.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.246–7 no.398, pl.404 (colour).
Wilton 1975, p.65; see also White 1977, p.81, and Stainton 1981, p.99.
See also David Hill, Joseph Mallord William Turner: Le Mont-Blanc et la Vallée d’Aoste, exhibition catalogue, Museo Archeologico Regionale, Aosta / Musée Archéologique Régional, Aoste, 2000 for other examples.

Matthew Imms
August 2016

Read full Catalogue entry


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