Joseph Mallord William Turner

An Artists’ Colourman’s Workshop


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on wood
Support: 622 × 914 mm
frame: 693 × 1020 × 65 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Though the scene owes much to seventeenth-century Dutch painting, it does depict some aspects of paint-making – the trade of the artist’s colourman – carried out during Turner’s lifetime. Horse- and donkey-mills as seen in the background were used for grinding large quantities of cheap pigments such as ochres, siennas and umbers, used by decorators and artists. These feature in virtually all his oil paintings and in many earlier watercolours too.

The colourman himself is grinding a quantity of red pigment into oil, using a heavy muller. It took half a day to grind a reasonable quantity. He would have put the paint into bladders of the type seen in Turner’s tin paintbox, for purchase by artists. In fact the red pigment is simple red ochre that could have come from the donkey-mill: Turner has painted it over a bright white ground to emulate the brilliance of vermilion. He used this technique often for pure and unmixed pigments, to dazzling effect.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

207. [N05503] An Artists' Colourman's Workshop c. 1807

Oil, 24 1/2 × 36 (62 × 91·5) on pine, 24 1/2 × 37 3/8 (62 × 95)
Inscr. ‘OLD MASTERS’ on book above door centre right and illegibly on vat lower left.
Coll. Turner Bequest (? 271, ‘1 (Panel’ 3'1 3/4" × 2'1"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1947.

Exh. Tate Gallery 1982 (p. 43, repr.).

Lit. Davies 1946, pp. 161–2; Marks 1981, p. 345.

This unfinished painting was tentatively identified by Martin Davies as showing ‘The Faker's Studio (?)’. However, Stefan Slabczynski, former Keeper of Conservation at the Tate Gallery, has pointed out that the man in the centre is grinding red pigments on a marble slab while a horse-driven wheel is grinding colours more coarsely behind; the various jars and vats are filled with paints or media.

The picture was painted on three rough planks of pine, the back having been gouged out to take a crossbar, rather than on a specially prepared artists' panel. On each side, though not at top or bottom, there is a 3/4 in. strip of bare wood, without ground or paint, suggesting that there were framing members there when the picture was painted. It is probable, therefore, that Turner used part of a door or panelling for this work.

Though unfinished and a bit larger, the painting is close in style and technique to A Country Blacksmith exhibited in 1807 (No. 68 [N00478]). The Garreteer's Petition, exhibited two years later, already seems to be somewhat later in style (No. 100 [N00482]).

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984


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