Joseph Mallord William Turner

Heavy Clouds over a Landscape


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 240 × 345 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 330

Technique and condition

This sketch on white wove paper has dramatically altered in appearance, owing to over-exposure to light while it was covered with a window mount that was placed skew. This may have been done to make the hastily-sketched horizon appear level. From Turner’s viewpoint, a level horizon would not have been vital for a rapid colour study such as this.
Originally, the sketch illustrated the contrast between a purplish grey cloudy sky, and a brownish green foreground landscape. Turner often used ‘optical’ or mixed greys and greens. All his contemporaries did the same for greens, for the good reason that there were no useful, strongly coloured green pigments to use directly, until the early to mid-nineteenth century. Artists mostly used indigo for the blue component, and any of the earth colours to mix in: brown ochre, raw or burnt sienna, raw or burnt umber. All these earth colours are familiar today, and still feature in watercolour boxes. For grass greens they mixed indigo with yellow ochre, or a yellow lake, Indian yellow or gamboge. The last three faded even more readily than indigo does, which is why many landscape areas in watercolour tend to look bluish, having lost some of the yellow. Indigo was commonly used for the sky as well, mixed with Indian red or in Turner's case the brighter red vermilion, and darkened with black. For really intense landscapes or skies, Turner substituted Prussian blue for the indigo. Such mixing gave many more gradations of colour than simply thinning down a black wash to give a neutral grey. And most artists who had mastered such methods continued to use them all their lives, even when green pigments became available.
The colour alteration here is extreme. It is a combination of blue lost from the indigo and vermilion red mixture used for the grey sky, the same blue lost from the indigo and brown ochre mixtures used for the foreground landscape, and the white paper having yellowed severely where it was exposed to light. It is still possible to see some of the intended effects in the sky: greyer and darker clouds to the left side, which had black mixed in as well. On the right, there was less red used generally, and more local variation, so the clouds were more bluish purple on this side, and paler towards the horizon. The vermilion has survived well. There seems to have been less shading in the landscape, to judge by what has survived round the edges. If both components of the mixture have faded it is naturally impossible to work out what may have been the intended appearance: here it takes some effort, but it is possible.

Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Catalogue entry

This study of heavy cloud rolling over a dark, featureless landscape may have originally shared something of the dramatic effect of Tate D25460 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 337), which is in much better condition; the present work is badly faded as discussed in the technical notes below. Compare also the lowering sky in the ‘Little Liber’ colour study Paestum, of about 1823–6 (Tate D36070; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 224).
Technical notes:
The freshness and intensity of the cool, dark blue-grey colours round the edges, formerly protected by a mount (fitted slightly askew to compensate for Turner’s not quite level horizon), are in stark contrast with the irreparable severe fading to browns and pinks at the centre from years of light exposure during the prolonged touring of the Turner Bequest’s Second Loan Collection; Finberg’s only comment in 1909 was a laconic ‘Blue faded’.1 Eric Shanes has suggested that further damage may have been sustained in the 1928 Tate Gallery flood.2
In 2011 the work was shown in somewhat more controlled conditions in the ‘Watercolour + Colour: Exploring the medium’ section of Tate Britain’s Watercolour exhibition as a prime example of the dangers inherent in the conservation and display of works on paper.
Finberg 1909, II, p.840; see also Warrell 1991, p.44.
See Shanes 1997, p.102.
Blank; there is some scattered brown staining.

Matthew Imms
March 2016

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