Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Watermill


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil on paper
Support: 260 × 319 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XXXIII a

Display caption

Turner began exhibiting watercolours at the Royal Academy in 1790. This is probably his first surviving landscape in oils, and may date from a little earlier than suggested above; the rather mannered trees resemble those in some 1791 watercolours of Bristol. Watermills were being overtaken by steam power at this time, and this ‘Picturesque’ example may be largely from Turner’s imagination, like the one in his contemporary oval watercolour of a scene from Don Quixote. The painting was originally set on a rectangular wash-line mount, more typically used for watercolours. Parts of its decorative border are still visible.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

With the possible exception of the ‘Self-portrait’ in the Indianapolis Museum of Art which, if by Turner, may date from 1791–2, this is the earliest exercise in oil to survive. (The Indianapolis self-portrait has a distinguished provenance and is accepted, though with reservations, by Butlin and Joll,1 but is difficult to reconcile with Turner’s work of even so early a moment as this. It appears to derive from the little miniature that Turner painted of himself, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. A genuine work of the 1790s may conceivably lie beneath the present paint layer, which gives the impression of having been applied in the late nineteenth century. The overall effect is of a sentimental attempt to evoke the portrait of a late eighteenth-century child.)
Although the present work does not appear to represent any literary subject, it is perhaps related to the oval composition illustrating Don Quixote (see under Tate D00189; Turner Bequest XVII N), which includes a watermill.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.19–20 no.20, pl.18.

Andrew Wilton
April 2012

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