Joseph Mallord William Turner

Clouds at Sunset


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 243 × 340 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 209

Catalogue entry

This sheet and Tate D25330 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 208) are closely related variants evoking a spectacular sunset. Gerald Wilkinson has described them as ‘concentrated on what seems to be the struggle of the colours of fire and blood against the encroaching purple of night, or death. There are many indications in his notebooks that Turner thought of his colours in just such terms.’1 This echoes John Ruskin: ‘The scarlet of the clouds was his symbol of destruction. In his mind it was the colour of blood.’2
Andrew Wilton has observed that the ‘rich colour and full-bodied paint suggest a date in the 1820s, rather than later’, comparing this study with Tate D25334 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 212), associated with the ‘Little Liber’ series3 (see ‘Little Liber c.1823–6’ in the present catalogue). In regarding this sheet as dating from a little later in the 1820s, Ian Warrell has noted that such studies, with their ‘understanding gained through the kind of colour chiaroscuro’ seen here, informed the ‘richness’4 of the skies in paintings of the period such as Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey, exhibited in 1829 (Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London),5 as well as informing the atmospheric effects of topographical watercolours in the Rivers of England and Picturesque Views in England and Wales series of the 1820s and 1830s.6
As the closely related D25330 has a watermark of 1823, this has been used as the start of the range date for the present work as well.
Wilkinson 1975, p.147.
E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds.), Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin: Volume V: Modern Painters: Volume III: Containing Part IV: Of Many Things, London 1904, p.438 footnote.
Wilton 1975, p.71.
Warrell 1991, p.11.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.183–5 no.330, pl.331 (colour).
Warrell 1991, p.41.
Blank; inscribed by John Ruskin in pencil ‘AB 79 P | O’ top left, upside down; inscribed in pencil ‘[?50]’ centre right, upside down; inscribed in pencil ‘CCLXIII | 209’ bottom right; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CCLXIII – 209’ bottom left.
The colour shows through noticeably from the recto.

Matthew Imms
March 2016

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