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 × 234 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXXI K

Technique and condition

This key, done after the painting was completed since it is too abbreviated to have been a stage in the painting process, is annotated with the names of the principal protagonists who feature in The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory of 1806–8 (Tate N00480). These are mainly naval officers: only those closest to the dying Admiral Nelson, and those still directing the course of the battle, are sketched. Most of the common sailors who crowd the deck in the painting are not even indicated by shading.
Wove paper, presumably white but with a greyish buff wash applied to the dry sheet with little attempt to make it lie evenly, forms a background colour not too dissimilar to that of the wooden deck surrounded by thick grey smoke from the ship’s cannon, in the painting. The uneven wash was created by mixing black with Indian red and yellow ochre, or similar shades of earth pigment. The unevenness may well be intentional, to suggest smoke. Turner was entirely capable of producing an even wash or a graded wash on any paper that could be wetted thoroughly, and indeed he often did this to commence a sky, or to differentiate sky and sea. (The most compelling reason not to soak paper is when it is bound into a sketchbook at the time.) The men were sketched in outline with iron gall ink, in the poses seen in the painting, and each is numbered in red ‘ink’. Red washes for the officers’ uniforms, blue washes for the sailors’ navy jackets, and a few grey washes made from black pigment only for the officers’ hats, were added within the outlines. Probably it took only a minute or so to apply each colour, using a single brush-load of paint. The key to the officers’ names is written below in two columns, in the same iron gall ink used for sketching the men. This has turned brown with age, but would have been black when applied and dried. After naming number sixteen of them, Turner ran out of paper, and continued the writing above the sketch.
The paper has been displayed with a window mount that covered these top lines of writing, as well as similarly large margins on the other three sides, clipping off the numbers in the left column. There is very considerable light damage in the central portion, which has made the paper turn brown, and has faded some of the writing almost to illegibility. The top lines look extremely faded also: therefore the whole sheet must been exposed to more light, without any window mount, as well. A sheet of grey-buff paper would have darkened even more, and left the brown writing quite impossible to read against it. The red washes are likely to be vermilion, which can withstand a great deal of light exposure. The red ‘ink’ has survived very well, and may indeed be made from vermilion in gum water, just like the red ‘ink’ that Turner would use in his late Swiss watercolours on many occasions. The sailors’ navy jackets have probably lost colour, since now they look pale and muddy. Prussian blue would have been a more suitable pigment to depict ‘navy blue’ than indigo: both would be expected to fade when given such obvious exposure to light, but indigo might not have survived at all in the circumstances. There may have been washes of yellow ochre for the sailors’ breeches, but it is not easy to be certain of this against the yellow/brown paper, even though this is a pigment not subject to fading.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
February 2011

Catalogue entry

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