Joseph Mallord William Turner

Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 184 × 272 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVII K

Display caption

Martello towers were built on the southern coasts of England between 1796-1812, to deter a French invasion. Blake and his wife lived further west along the coast, at Felpham, between 1800-3. He may have conceived the words which we now know as Jerusalem there.

Blake often called the island of Britain ‘Albion’. Being so close to France, its south coast was militarily very active, as the soldiers seen here suggest. While at Felpham Blake was arrested as a spy, probably because his activity as a miniature painter was mis-heard as ‘military painter’. Jerusalem is not, of course, about military strength.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner and William Say, ‘Martello Towers, near Bexhill, Sussex’, published Turner, [?1] June 1811
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design shows the East Sussex coast at Galley Hill,1 just east of Bexhill, looking towards Pevensey Bay in the distance; William of Normandy had landed nearby prior to the Battle of Hastings and the last successful invasion of England in 1066. The South and East Coasts were now fortified by round Martello towers with look-out positions and gun emplacements, built between 1805 and 1812 against the imminent threat of Napoleon’s forces.2 Stopford Brooke considered the patriotic significance of the design: ‘It is in [the] guardianship of England that the sentiment of the subject lies, and the central tower, all in light, fixes our feeling on this thought. But the storm above defends England also, nor is the great chalk cliff without its aspect of defiance.’3 He also described the way in which Turner concentrated attention on the subject, as the ‘two swift-riding men enliven the road, and serve to insist on the dip of the ground, and to lengthen out the road to the eye. Lastly, the group of boy, woman, and child dimly repeat, and certainly lift into the air the centre of the composition, the Martello Tower and its companion.’4
As Gillian Forrester has demonstrated, the Napoleonic Wars and the military and domestic British response are alluded to in various Liber compositions, 5 including Winchelsea, Sussex, with its modern soldiers and medieval defences (for drawing see Tate D08145; Turner Bequest CXVII Q), and Crowhurst. In the latter, probably dating from after the end of the wars in 1815, the distant view of the coast – the same stretch as depicted in the present drawing – is obscured, but Turner’s original sketch and a related watercolour show a closely-spaced row of Martello towers (see catalogue entry for Tate D08172; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII R).
A slight pencil and chalk sketch of the Sussex coast in the Hurstmonceux and Pevensey sketchbook of about the mid 1800s (Tate D05628; Turner Bequest XCI 11) has been suggested as a possible source,6 although the towers do not appear – unless one is under construction in the middle distance. A substantial canvas, completely reworked in about 1830 and now depicting Figures in a Building (Tate N05496)7 originally showed the same Martello towers and landscape as the Liber composition (though without figures), as a very clear x-radiograph image has revealed.8 The status of the canvas, apparently dating from about the same time as the Liber drawing, is unclear;9 as Forrester notes, no other large-scale studies purely for the purpose of developing an image for the Liber are known, and Turner may have contemplated a finished, exhibitable painting ‘in a burst of patriotic fervour’.10
Eric Shanes, Turner’s Rivers, Harbours and Coasts, London 1981, p.45.
English Heritage data, accessed 26 May 2006,; see also The South Coast Martello Towers, accessed 26 May 2006,; and Townsend and Warrell 1991, pp.56–7.
Brooke 1885, p.111.
Ibid., p.112; see also Shanes 1990, p.113.
Forrester 1996, p.93.
Townsend and Warrell 1991, pp.56, 57 note 16, as ‘XCVI f.11’.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.281 no.446, pl.447.
Townsend and Warrell 1991, p.54 fig.2; see also Forrester 1996, p.93, no.34iii, reproduced.
See Townsend and Warrell 1991, pp.56–7.
Forrester 1996, p.94.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.69–70 no.97, pl.104 (colour).
Finberg 1910, pp.80–1.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.69–76; 1906, pp.80–9; Finberg 1924, pp.125–44.
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908, p.55 no.103.
Wilton 1979, p.352 no.460.
See Shanes 1981, p.45.
Rawlinson 1908, p.55.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slides of details.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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