Joseph Mallord William Turner

Key to ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 186 x 234 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXXI K

Technique and condition

Catalogue entry

This sheet was kept, as Finberg described, in another ‘endorsed by Mr. [John] Ruskin – “Trafalgar. (Original key-sketch for the Exhibition?.) Out of Rubbish heap at bottom of Box H. J.R., 1878”’. Ruskin guessed that it was intended for visitors to Turner’s Gallery in 1806, as a key to his picture Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (Tate, N00480) then exhibited there.1 It numbers and names the principal characters in the picture, who are also roughly sketched in colour. Finberg stated that there was a description of the whole subject of the picture on the reverse. If so key and description must have been mounted on both sides of another sheet or mount, or have formed halves of the same sheet folded, as the description is now mounted beneath the key (as Tate D08267).
The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) resulted in a British victory over the combined fleets of France and Spain but also in the death of Lord Nelson. At a critical point in the battle, walking the quarterdeck of his flagship Victory, he was struck by a shot from a French marksman in the mizzen top of the French ship Redoutable which was positioned to starboard. Turner’s picture shows the moment Nelson fell, the officers and men who rushed to support him, and other incidents including the wounded Lieutenant Pasco, Nelson’s flag-lieutenant, being carried from the poop deck by the port gangway in the context of the surrounding narrative of the battle. The composition, content and details were developed from sketches and notes made off Sheerness when the Victory returned; see the Nelson sketchbook (Tate D05446–D05490; D40701–D40705; D41427; Turner Bequest LXXXIX) and larger views of the ship’s deck looking to the bow and stern (Tate D08243; Turner Bequest CXX c, D08275; Turner Bequest CXXI S).
Both key and description were badly damaged and left largely illegible by the Thames flood which struck Turner Bequest works on paper in the stores of the Tate Gallery in 1928. Perhaps as a result, they were not mentioned in Butlin and Joll’s catalogue entry for the 1806 picture. However, most of the image and inscriptions were revealed by ultra-violet scanning prior to the 1989 Tate exhibition, permitting the readings first published by Upstone and repeated here (with slight changes). Even allowing for damage, the sketch and texts seem hasty and improvised. Possibly they were only drafts or work in progress; the picture itself may have been unfinished when shown in 1806 and was reworked in 1808.2 Another possibility might be that Turner was planning an engraved key, to be published if the picture was more enthusiastically received than it actually was.

David Blayney Brown
April 2006

Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London1984, pp.46–7 no.58 (pl.68)
For Joseph Farington’s comment that it was ‘a very crude, unfinished performance’ see Butlin and Joll 1984, p.46
Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London 1986, pp.220–2 no.108
As described by West to Watkins French, 17 February 1806; in von Erffa and Staley 1986, p.220 note 1
John D. Clarke, The Men of HMS Victory at Trafalgar including The Muster Roll, Casualties, Rewards and Medals, Uckfield 1999, pp.27–50

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