Joseph Mallord William Turner

Moonlight at Sea (The Needles)


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 209 × 276 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Turner Bequest CXVIII V

Display caption

Between 1806 and 1819 Turner was working on a set of images for a publication known as the Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies). The series, based on Claude Lorrain’s famous Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), consisted of seventy-one prints in brown ink, after watercolours by Turner. Shown here are three of the watercolours, and one of the prints from the project.

Turner’s intention was to promote landscape art in its various manifestations and he devoted an entire category to ‘Marine Landscape’. Some of the seascapes were entirely new designs; others were based on existing compositions.

Gallery label, April 2005

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Catalogue entry

Purchased from Henry Dawe by Charles Stokes by 1848, 15 guineas
Bequeathed by Stokes to Hannah Cooper, 1853
Exchanged 19 May 1854 via Thomas Griffith
Henry Vaughan by 1878, and possibly by 1862
(see main catalogue entry)
Turner’s design, engraved for the Liber Studiorum but not published, was based on an early painting, itself almost certainly the work exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1796 (305) as Fishermen at Sea (Tate T01585);1 on this assumption, it was his first exhibited oil. However, it may be that he did not consider the composition for inclusion in the series until listing it in about 1817–18 (see below); it would presumably have been intended for the ‘Marine’ category. As Gillian Forrester notes, the related plate has generally been attributed to Turner alone, but since the present drawing was owned by the Liber engraver Henry Dawe, he may possibly have had some direct involvement – the same may apply in the case of the unpublished Kingston Bank design (for drawing see Tate D08177; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII W).2
The oil had been purchased in 1796 and it is not known whether Turner saw it subsequently. Uniquely among the identifiable topographical subjects in the Liber, the print, usually held to represent the Needles (coastal chalk formations at the western tip of the Isle of Wight), is reversed in comparison with the drawing and the original painting; the stacks and arch are also freely rearranged, and Turner may have felt preserving their orientation – obscure as they are in the dark distance – was unnecessary in this case and treated the design as the starting point for a generic coastal scene. The various elements in the drawing are in roughly the same configuration as in the painting, but vary throughout in their details and precise juxtapositions; most notably, the nearer boat is now shown heading towards the coast rather than out to sea. Finberg noted that the artist Sir Francis Seymour Haden thought the rocks were at the entrance of Freshwater Bay, about four miles to the east of the Needles;3 one of Turner’s drawings in the 1795 Isle of Wight sketchbook shows rocks at the latter location (Tate D00447; Turner Bequest XXIV 39) including a prominent, leaning chalk stack, but the correlation is far from exact.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.1–2 no.1, pl.1 (colour).
Forrester 1996, pp.150, 151 note 3.
Finberg 1924, reproduced p.341.
Forrester 1996, p.163.
Ibid., p.151 note 2.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163; 1906, p.189, proofs (a) and (b); Finberg 1924, p.341; Forrester 1996, pp.150–1, including proof no.85ii.
Forrester 1996, p.151.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163; 1906, pp.189–90; not recorded in Finberg 1924; Forrester 1996, pp.150–1.
Forrester 1996, p.151.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163; 1906, p.190.
Christie, Manson and Woods, London, 24–28 March 1873.
Forrester 1996, p.151 and note 6.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.144–69; 1906, pp.169–96; Finberg 1924, pp.287–365.
Hardie 1938, p.65 no.30, reproduced p.[103] pl.XII.
Short, quoted in ibid., p.65.
Forrester 1996, p.150; ‘Cooper Notebooks’, vol.II, p.6 no.5 in Krause 1997, p.267.
Catalogue of Examples (1870), no.31B, in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn eds., Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin: Volume XXI: The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogues, Notes, and Instructions, London 1906, p.65.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163.
Forrester 1996, pp.15, 24 note 82 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8); see also Bower, Tate conservation files.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
May 2006

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