Joseph Mallord William Turner

Hills and Trees: ?A Paper Test


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 265 × 222 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 297

Display caption

The methodical distribution of colours in this drawing suggests it was a paper test sheet. Turner constantly acquired paper and the gauging of its absorbency, resistance to colours and surface strength must have been a necessary preliminary to its use. Here perhaps Turner was loath just to test dabs of colour unrelated to any imagery, and so he created an improvisatory but fragmented composition.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

This sheet effectively comprises two halves, with a conventional if slight landscape of trees and a red rectangular structure against hills and a stormy sky at the top, and isolated tree shapes and patches of colour over a grey wash at the bottom. Gerald Finberg observed how some of Finberg’s more idiosyncratic titles in the 1909 Inventory, such as ‘An experiment with trees’ here,1 had led the art historian Christian Geelhaar to compare Turner’s work to that of the Swiss-German Modernist artist Paul Klee (1879–1940),2 although Wilkinson dismissed such formalist connections as ‘tenuous’. Instead he suggested that the ‘somewhat trite little landscape in very clear, sweet colours’ might have been made as a demonstration of ‘economically overlaid washes for a pupil, were it not for Turner’s one-to-one teaching being limited to the early part of his career3 (see the ‘Copy-Drawings 1794–8’ section of the present catalogue).
The Turner scholar and artist Eric Shanes has conducted a very thorough analysis of Turner’s approach in this work, categorising it as one of a dozen ‘Paper Test-Sheets’ among the ‘colour beginnings’,4 which were ‘given over to the investigation of brushwork effects, the diffusion of colours, paper characteristics and the like. Usually the test sheets can be identified by their imagery (or lack of it), or by some technical detail that was obviously of primary interest to the artist.’5 They may have been occasioned by Turner’s acquisition of new types of paper, and in this case ‘the extreme formalisation of the image – not for nothing has it been likened to a Paul Klee – suggests strongly that Turner tested the sheet with dabs, washes and further overlays of colour, and was not overly concerned with his imagery while doing so.’6 Nevertheless, ‘perhaps Turner was loath just to test dabs of colour unrelated to any imagery, and so he created an improvisatory but fragmented composition.’7
Although it is relatively small, the effective division of the paper into two equal working areas is consistent with Turner working on more than one design at the same time, sometimes within the same sheet and subsequently divided.8 Indeed, two of the works in this section (Tate D25498, D25499; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 375a, 375b) remain together as unrelated compositions one above the other. The present work has been dated here to about 1820–30 in line with Shanes’s ‘?1820s’.
Finberg 1909, II, p.837.
See Christian Geelhaar, Paul Klee and the Bauhaus, Bath 1973, p.42.
Wilkinson 1975, p.110.
See Shanes 1997, p.100
Ibid., p.11.
Ibid., p.30.
Ibid., p.38.
Ibid., p.23.

Matthew Imms
December 2015

Ibid., pp.38–9.
Ibid., p.39.

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