Joseph Mallord William Turner

Bass Rock from The ‘Gegan’ Rock


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 99 × 159 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXV 3 a

Catalogue entry

Despite Finberg’s reading of Turner’s inscription to suggest an island called St Agatha (there are none by that name off Scotland), this is clearly (along with drawings on folios 5, 5 verso, 7, 8, 8 verso; D13329, D13330, D13333, D13335, D13336; 5, 5a, 7, 8 and 8a) as Eric Shanes suggest, the Bass Rock.1 Turner’s inscription is more likely to read ‘Gegan’, the name of a rocky outcrop opposite Tantallon Castle, and it was probably from here that he drew the Bass Rock. For the inscription on the rock itself, David Blayney Brown has suggested ‘granite’ (from which the rock is composed) or ‘gannet’ (the birds that colonise it, see folio 2; D13324; CLXV 2).2
The drawing is very close to folio 5 though drawn with a blunter pencil point to give different effects of light and shade. Turner’s numerous sketches of the rock all record slightly different information, all of which was useful to Turner in his final composite watercolour rendering, Bass Rock, circa 1824 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).3 This drawing includes a small sailing boat in front of the rock, demonstrating its vast scale. The motif was repeated in another drawing in this sketchbook (folio 7; D13333; CLXV 7), and makes its final appearance in the watercolour with a small craft of rescuers or wreckers.4
Shanes suggests that a watercolour study of the Bass Rock (Tate D35973; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 130), made in preparation for the 1824 watercolour was based on this sketch and another on folio 5 verso, with the indication of a ‘foundering vessel’ before the island as in this drawing.5
The rough sketch at the bottom of the sheet may represent the coastline around Tantallon Castle. Turner inscription at the bottom of the page ‘rocks’ and ‘car’, or ‘cap’, probably refer to the nearby rocks at Seacliff to the East of North Berwick known as ‘Car Rocks’ and ‘Great Car’, or else to the rocks nearer Scoughall called ‘Beggar’s Cap’.
A tear at the centre of the left edge has been repaired.

Thomas Ardill
October 2007

Shanes 1997, pp.56–7.
David Blayney Brown in conversation with the author August 2007.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.426 no.1069.
Eric Shanes suggested in his lecture to the Turner Society (‘Turner in Scotland and Turners in Scotland’, Paul Mellon Centre, London, 20 October 2007) that these are wreckers – people who scavenged from wrecked vessels or even tricked ships into crashing on the rocks in order to loot the wreckage. In his story, The Wreckers, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about how the wreckers, or the ‘Pagans of Scoughall’, would lure ships onto the Great Car reef by tricking them with lantern lights. The lighthouse that now stands on the Bass was erected in 1902 by the civil engineering company founded by Stevenson’s grandfather.
Wilton 1979, p.426 no.1069; Shanes 1997, p.57.

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