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.