Joseph Mallord William Turner

Fishermen at Sea

exhibited 1796

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 914 × 1222 mm
frame: 1120 × 1425 × 105 mm
Purchased 1972

Display caption

The first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy, this is a moonlit scene in the tradition of Horace Vernet, Philip de Loutherbourg and Joseph Wright of Derby. These painters were largely responsible for fuelling the 18th-century vogue for nocturnal subjects. The sense of the overwhelming power of nature is a key theme of the Sublime. The potency of the moonlight contrasts with the delicate vulnerability of the flickering lantern, emphasising nature’s power over mankind and the fishermen’s fate in particular. The jagged silhouettes on the left are the treacherous rocks called ‘the Needles’ off the Isle of Wight.

Gallery label, July 2010

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Catalogue entry

1. [T01585] Fishermen at Sea Exh. 1796

Canvas, 36 × 48 1/8 (91·5 × 122·4).

Coll. Purchased 1796 by ‘General Stewart’; ...; by descent from the mid nineteenth century to F.W.A. Fairfax-Cholmeley, sold through Thos. Agnew and Sons Ltd to the Tate Gallery 1972.

Exh. R.A. 1796 (305); Tate Gallery 1931 (I, repr.); on loan to the Tate Gallery, with interruptions, 1931–72; R.A. 1951–2 (180); Tate Gallery 1959 (342, repr. pl. 46); Paris 1972 (258, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (19); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (4).

Engr. By Turner for his Liber Studiorum but not published (repr. Finberg 1924, p. 340; the preliminary pen and sepia drawing from the Vaughan Bequest, now with works from the Turner Bequest in the British Museum, CXVIII–V, repr. ibid.).

Lit. Cunningham 1852, p. 7; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 75; 1877, p. 44; Bell 1901, p. 30; A.J. Finberg, ‘Turner's First Exhibited Oil Painting’, Burlington Magazine lviii 1931, pp. 262–7, repr. p. 266 fig. B; Rothenstein 1949, p. 24, colour pl. 1; Finberg 1961, pp. 33–4, 458 no. 22; Herrmann 1963, p. 10; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 7–8, 15, pl. 5; Gage 1964, pp. 22–3, repr. p. 20 fig. 30; Lindsay 1966, pp. 27–8, 120, 223 no. 24; Lindsay 19662, p. 17; Gage 1969, pp. 33–5, 78, pl. 22; Wilkinson 1972, pp. 35, 38, repr. p. 39; Herrmann 1975, pp. 12, 226, pl. 18; Wallace 1979, p. 109, pl. 3; Wilton 1979, pp. 49–51, pl. 26; Wilton 1980, pp. 37–9, pl. viii.

The identification of this picture with the work exhibited at the R.A. in 1796 as ‘Fishermen at Sea’, though not absolutely certain, is very probable. The R.A. picture was exhibited in the ‘Anti Room’ together with portraits, landscapes and subject paintings at least some of which, such as portraits by Hoppner and Beechey, must have been in oils, whereas Turner's watercolour exhibits were in the Antique Academy and the Council Room. Two contemporary accounts describe the exhibited work in terms that fit the Tate Gallery picture. According to the Companion to the exhibition, ‘As a sea-piece this picture is effective. But the light on the sea is too far extended. The colouring is, however, natural and masterly; and the figures, by not being more distinct and determined, suit the obscure perception of the objects, dimly seen through the gloom of night, partially illumined.’ John Williams (‘Anthony Pasquin’) in the Critical Guide follows his praise of the picture with the comment, ‘the boats are buoyant and swim well, and the undulation of the element is admirably deceiving’.

Furthermore, Thornbury, on the basis of MS notes written by the engraver E. Bell (according to which Bell had first met Turner in 1795) says that ‘The same valuable record mentions also that Turner's first oil picture of any size or consequence [following ‘his first attempt in oil, from a sketch in crayon, of a sunset on the Thames, near the Red House, Battersea’] was a view of flustered and scurrying fishing-boats in a gale of wind off the Needles, which General Stewart bought for £10’. The Needles are prominent in the middle distance on the left of the painting, and Turner had toured the Isle of Wight, including the westernmost point, in 1795 (see the sketchbook, labelled ‘95, Isle of Wight’ by Turner himself and watermarked 1794, in the British Museum, XXIV).

Though none of the sketches in the ‘Isle of Wight’ sketchbook is directly related to the painting, the larger watercolour apparently from the ‘Cyfarthfa’ sketchbook is fairly close (XLI-37, also watermarked 1794; Finberg 1909, i, p. 99, disputes the traditional title of ‘The Needles’, suggesting ‘(?) Oxwich Bay, Gower’, but the former identification seems to be correct). John Gage suggests a dependence on a drawing of 1794 by P.J. de Loutherbourg (repr. Burlington Magazine cvii 1965, p. 20, fig. 31, and Wilkinson 1972, p. 39; see also Gage 1969, loc. cit. and p. 229 n.53) but the relationship is not close. Gage has, however, convincingly demonstrated that Turner's interest in the Isle of Wight reflected Picturesque fashion in the 1790s. In style Fishermen at Sea is in the tradition of Joseph Vernet, Wright of Derby and de Loutherbourg, particularly in the contrasting of the cold natural light of the moon with the ruddier glow of the lantern in the boat. Turner developed this style in one of his R.A. exhibits of the following year, Moonlight, a Study at Millbank no.2 (N00459).

In the R.A. catalogue Fishermen at Sea was not marked with the asterisk that distinguished works ‘to be disposed of’. It had presumably been bought already by the ‘General Stewart’ of Bell's account, of whom nothing is known. How it passed to the Fairfax-Cholmeley family is unclear.

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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