Joseph Mallord William Turner

Memoranda of Sunrise; And a sketch of Spurn Point


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 187 × 114 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CC 3

Catalogue entry

Although the sketches of sunrise on this and the opposite page (folio 2 verso; D17511) are not related to any particular project or picture they are nevertheless important to Turner as a painter of nature and particularly of light, and have had an even greater significance to Turner studies. John Ruskin singled out the sketch, illustrating it in the fifth volume of Modern Painters and describing it as ‘probably one of the most important sketches made in Turner’s life, fixing for ever in his mind certain facts respecting the sunrise from a clear sea-horizon’.1 The illustration is also used in Ruskin’s Catalogue of the Sketches and Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Exhibited in Marlborough House, 1857–1958; and folios 2 verso and 3 were on display in that exhibition and subsequent touring exhibitions for several decades (see folio 2 verso).2 Ruskin’s analysis, as Gerald Wilkinson has noted, helped to establish ‘an early precedent for the study of Turner through his sketches’.3
The ‘Memoranda of Sunrise’ as Ruskin put it, begins on folio 2 verso with a sketch of a multicoloured sky and yellow sun seen between horizontal layers of clouds. As the sun is well above the horizon, this must either be the end of the sunrise sequence, or even a sketch of the sunset the previous evening. A sketch of the Norfolk coast above includes the inscription ‘Red sun on water’. This suggests that Turner was sketching Norfolk towards evening, and took the opportunity to draw the sun setting. That night the boat he was travelling in sailed or steamed on towards the south-east Yorkshire coast. Turner rose early the next morning to record the appearance of the sun rising, making a sketch of Spurn Point as it came into view. The first appearance of the sun above the horizon is recorded at the bottom of folio 2 verso.
Ruskin begins describing the sequence of sketches from the top of folio 3:
(Half circle at the top.) When the sun was only half out of the sea, the horizon was sharply traced across its disk, and red streaks of vapour crossed the lower part of it.
Ruskin V 1900, pp.186 illustrated as block cut fig.97, 187.
Cook and Wedderburn XIII 1904, pp.300, 301 reproduced as block cut fig.6, 302.
Wilkinson 1975, p.23.

Thomas Ardill
July 2008

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