In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 161 × 245 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII U

Display caption

Another design for the survey of English ports planned by Turner and Thomas Lupton. Dover Castle dominates the composition. Turner has added drama by the stormy sky, and by the exaggeration of the cliffs on the left, which Ruskin complained diminished the town itself. The wreck on the shore, the brig on the right, a lobster-fishing boat and a new paddle-steamer evoke the activities of the port, both traditional and modern.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Dover, being the nearest British port to the Continent, has always retained ‘strong symbolic associations as Britain’s premier gateway and bastion’ the curator James Hamilton writes.1 Dover Castle, whose keep and outer curtain walls are sunlit in the drawing atop the precipitous headland, was built in the 1180s for Henry II and completed under his successor Henry III.2 The castle was refortified from the 1750s and further modifications for artillery followed during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.3
A steamship, symbolic of the modernism of the age, is incorporated into this view. Silhouetted against the white cliffs, the packet underscores, writes James Hamilton, ‘Turner’s view of the patriotic importance of Dover in Regency Britain’.4 The intrepid vessel, presumably the regular cross-Channel passenger service to Calais, ‘steams cheerily out to sea, while all around it sailing ships do the wind’s will, and oarsmen puff and pant’.5 The steam issuing from its chimney is rendered, as Eric Shanes writes, in ‘an adroitly simple squiggle’, perhaps one of the reasons why a reviewer from the Athenaeum remarked that the packet resembled a toy-like ‘puppet boat’.6 Turner’s diminutive, sooty machine plunged into shadow makes manifest the sentiments of the American inventor and painter Samuel Finley Breese Morse who called the Dover-Calais steamers ‘small, black, dirty, confined things’.7 The shipping surrounding the steamer, from the left, is ‘a gig with its lugsail being set and its crew hauling on the oars’; a ‘lobster boat with fishermen waiting patiently with folded arms’; in the distance the skeletal timbers of ‘beached, wrecked brig’; ‘a small, heavily laden hoy’; a ‘lugger’, and finally ‘the ubiquitous Turnerian brig’.8
Ruskin disapproved of Turner’s ‘habit of local exaggeration’, manifest largely in the cliffs which ‘make the town at their feet three times lower in proportionate height than it really is’.9 As a result Ruskin observed that the barracks on the left hand of the cliff had ‘the air of a hospice on the top of an Alpine precipice’.10 The ‘rest of the composition’, he writes, is ‘more commonplace than is usual with the great master; but there are beautiful transitions of light and shade between the sails of the little fishing-boat, the brig behind her, and the cliffs’.11
Hamilton 1998, p.78.
Bryant 1996, p.40.
Hamilton 1998, p.78
Athenaeum, 26 July 1856, p.923 quoted in Rodner 1997, p.26.
Quoted in Rodner 1997, p.26.
Shanes 1990, p.132, no.104 (colour).
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.51.
Ibid, p.52.
Shanes 1990, p.147, no.117 (colour).
Warrell 1991, p.36, no.20

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

This inscription is copied from Ian Warrell, Turner: The Fourth Decade: Watercolours 1820–1830, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, p.36, no.20 reproduced.

Read full Catalogue entry


You might like

In the shop