Joseph Mallord William Turner

Moonlight, a Study at Millbank

exhibited 1797

In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on mahogany
Support: 314 × 403 mm
frame: 507 × 602 × 115 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner painted this work of the Thames at night from a position near that of Tate Britain. It dates from the year after Turner showed his first oil painting at the Royal Academy, also a marine night painting (or nocturne). It was fashionable to show moonlight effects in pictures at this time. They were mostly based on Dutch 17th-century painters like Aert van der Neer, then popular with British collectors. Unlike those highly stylised paintings, here the impression is naturalistic.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

2. [N00459] Moonlight, a Study at Millbank Exh. 1797

Mahogany, 12 3/8 × 15 7/8 (31·5 × 40·5).
Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (96, ‘River Scene Moonlight’ 1'4" × 1'0 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1797 (136); Tate Gallery 1931 (2); R.A. 1974–5 (20); Hamburg 1976 (6, repr.).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 258, 261; ii, p. 331; 1877, pp. 92, 417–18; Hamerton 1879, p. 50; Bell 1901, p. 71 no. 82; Armstrong 1902, pp. 31, 225; Finberg 1910, pp. 28–9; Davies 1946, p. 187; Clare 1951, p. 18; Finberg 1961, pp. 42, 459 no. 33; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 8–10, pl. 6; Gaunt 1971, p. 4, colour pl. 2; Wilton 1979, pp. 41 n. 37, 51.

For a long time, until the identification of the 1796 Fishermen at Sea (No. 1), regarded as Turner's ‘first exhibited oil-picture’ (Thornbury 1862, i, p. 258). It is perhaps just possible that this picture is imperfectly remembered in a note by the engraver Bell, as given by Thornbury (1862, i, p. 75) of how ‘Mr. Bell stood by in the little room in Maiden-lane when Turner made his first attempt in oil, from a sketch in crayon, of a sunset on the Thames, near the Red House, Battersea’.

Unlike the other oil exhibited in 1797 no.1 (T01585) this picture does not seem to have attracted any critical attention.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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