Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Transparency: A Moss-Covered Cottage and Shed, with a Man Smoking and a Lantern


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 331 × 235 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XXVIII H

Display caption

This drawing, together with 'Moonlight Through Trees' (also displayed on this wall), has the additional interest of being a 'transparency'. Such pictures, for which there developed a vogue during the mid-1790s, were intended to offer two effects; one when seen ordinarily and a second, more dramatic, when a light source is placed behind the sheet. The latter method of viewing usually invests the image with the romantic glow of moonlight and/or firelight. The adjacent photograph shows the drawing as it appears when lit from behind.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

The fashion for transparencies emerged in second half of the 1790s; they were much enjoyed by amateurs. Turner realised that there were important lessons to be learned from the use of pigment on the back of the sheet, to enhance contrasts of opacity and transparency, the inherent characteristics of watercolour. As Bower suggests, he may have anticipated the fashion; the style of this sheet is difficult to reconcile with a date later than early 1795. The treatment of the verso (D40335) with its rich, dense pigments, certainly foreshadows the technical developments in his work of the second half of the decade.
The first of his finished and exhibited watercolours to use the reverse of the paper to enhance the warmth and tone of the image is the view of Chepstow Castle (Courtauld Gallery, London),1 which seems to date from about 1793. Another example is Llandilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle, shown at the Royal Academy in 1796 (National Museum Wales, Cardiff).2 Another specimen in the Turner Bequest is apparently by another hand (Tate D00698; Turner Bequest XXVIII M). Turner may have owned it as an example of a genre in which he wished to experiment; or it may be the work of a pupil.

Andrew Wilton
April 2012

Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.311 no.88, reproduced.
Ibid., p.315 no.140, reproduced; see Christine Mackay, ‘Turner’s Llandeilo Bridge and Dynevor Castle’ in Colin Ford, Masataka Hayashi, David Alston and others, A Picturesque Tour through Wales 1675 to 1855: Watercolours from the Collection of the National Museums & Galleries of Wales: Festival UK98, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu 1998.

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