Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Sunset Sky over a Landscape


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 248 × 351 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 207

Display caption

Turner was one of the first artists to paint the same motif at different times of the day in order to observe the changing effects of light. This group of watercolours repeats the same pictorial formula at sunrise, sunset, twilight and moonlight.

A natural structure is imposed by the simple unbroken line of the horizon separating the composition into a lower and upper plane. Turner reinforces the emphasis on the horizontal by applying the watercolour in bold bands of contrasting colour.

Gallery label, April 2005

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Catalogue entry

Although this work has been exhibited as ‘Sunset over the Sea’,1 Gerald Wilkinson’s description of it as showing a ‘red sky, with mist below the horizon’ suggests the plausible alternative of a landscape with bluish hills on the horizon.
There is an illegible inscription at the top edge, which seems to be an inverted word partly cut off when the sheet was trimmed, and may as Andrew Wilton has suggested refer to a different subject initially worked up on the same sheet.2 As is not uncommon with his ‘colour beginnings’ and some more developed compositions, Turner painted the present work within a notional, albeit irregular, border of blank paper, using the bottom edge to test his colours as he went;3 compare Shields Lighthouse of about 1823–6 (Tate D25431; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 308). The latter is a study for one of the ‘Little Liber’ landscapes (see the ‘Little Liber c.1823–6’ section of this catalogue), and the present work has a likely fortuitous similarity to the so-called ‘Gloucester Cathedral’ composition in the same series (see Tate D25334, D25368 and D25430; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 212, 246, 307). Compare also the oil Sunset thought to date from the early 1830s (Tate N01876),4 and Tate D25412 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 289) in the present subsection, with its equally undeveloped and ambiguous setting.
See Wilton 1974, p.98 no.266, and Wilton 1977, p.37 no.18.
See Wilton 1974, p.98.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.12–13 no.14, pl.11 (colour).
Technical notes:
There are two heavily scored marks towards the right, with slight surface losses, but pigment has also pooled in the lines, possibly owing to damage in the 1928 Tate Gallery flood. The sheet has been irregularly trimmed at the top, right and bottom, as Andrew Wilton has noted,1 as discussed above.
See Wilton 1974, p.98.
Blank; inscribed by John Ruskin in pencil ‘AB 79 P | O’ top left, upside down; inscribed in pencil ‘CCLXIII | 207’ bottom right.

Matthew Imms
March 2016

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