Joseph Mallord William Turner

Plymouth from the North


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil on paper
Support: 162 × 268 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXXX H

Technique and condition

The paper used here is a heavy weight, wove, originally blue-grey but now mid-brown wrapping paper with no discernible watermark. It is an unusual choice for Turner: heavier than normal, stronger on account of its thickness, and in a colour he did not choose with great frequency until later in his life. The sheet is fibrous with many flecks, imperfections and additions of poor-quality hemp-like fibres. It has discoloured considerably with age. There are prominent tide lines across the bottom half. It is possible that this damage was caused during the 1928 Thames flood which damaged many of the items from the Turner Bequest.
This is a very delicately painted landscape scene, apparently in oil medium. Paper and oil is an unusual combination of materials for Turner, and the paper has to be heavily sized or painted first to prevent oil medium soaking in, making paper appear brown and transparent whatever its initial colour, and making it prone to grow darker and more brittle with age. Unusually Turner has painted the top half of the sheet in full but apparently left the bottom half of the sheet unpainted. First thoughts that water damage has carried away both paint and preparatory layer in this half are unfounded. Second thoughts that Turner painted the whole landscape and then thoroughly wiped away the dissatisfactory bottom half (using something like a turpentine soaked rag) with the intention of repainting it later do not fit the evidence either. Closer examination of the image at 200x magnification revealed that the brush-strokes where the image peters out are all complete and that none have been severed or partially removed, showing that this abrupt ending was created intentionally by the artist. There is little or no visual evidence for the preparatory layer that ought to be there. Peter Bower1 has suggested it included indigo, and was itself therefore prone to lose colour.
Slight cracking of the paint film is visible in the centre of the sky and in the top left hand corner. In these areas some paint has been lost. Exposure to water might be the cause. The extreme colour change in the support indicates considerable exposure to light, which would be sufficient to fade the blue indigo probably used here, as well as to darken the support even beneath the paint, leading to a general shift of tone towards brown.

Helen Evans
June 2009

Revised by Joyce Townsend
February 2011

Peter Bower, ‘Turner’s Use of Papers and Boards as a Support for Oil Sketches’, in Leslie Parris ed., Exploring Late Turner, exhibition catalogue, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York 1999, pp.61–79.

Catalogue entry

[from] Nos. 213–25: Devonshire Sketches, 1813

THIS group of oil sketches on paper of Devonshire subjects has always been associated with Turner's second visit to Devon. His first had been in the summer of 1811 and the second is dated by Finberg to the summer of 1813; the chief evidence lies in the later account of Cyrus Redding, whose reference to the visit of the singer Madame Catalani to Saltram can presumably be linked with her known appearances at Exeter and Truro in August 1813. The same journey lay behind Turner's Crossing the Brook, exhibited in 1815 (see No. 130 [N00497]). Turner also seems to have visited south Devon in 1814 (see Gage 1980, pp. 57–9).

Redding describes a picnic on the heights of Mont Edgcumbe at which ‘Turner showed the ladies some of his sketches in oil, which he had brought with him, perhaps to verify them’. This could suggest that they had been executed indoors, but on the other hand, as Evelyn Joll has pointed out, Turner may have painted them on a previous excursion and now wished to check the exact locations. Indeed, another companion, Charles (later Sir Charles) Eastlake, told Thornbury how, when Turner 'returned to Plymouth, in the neighbourhood of which he remained some weeks, Mr. Johns [Ambrose Johns, 1776–1858, a local landscape painter] fitted up a small portable painting-box, containing some prepared paper for oil sketches, as well as the other necessary materials. When Turner halted at a scene and seemed inclined to sketch it, Johns produced the inviting box, and the great artist, finding everything ready to his hand, immediately began to work. As he sometimes wanted assistance in the use of the box, the presence of Johns was indispensible, and after a few days he made his oil sketches freely in our presence. Johns accompanied him always; I was only with them occasionally. Turner seemed pleased when the rapidity with which those sketches were done was talked of; for, departing from his habitual reserve in the instance of his pencil sketches, he made no difficulty of showing them. On one occasion, when, on his return after a sketching ramble, to a country residence belonging to my father near Plympton, the day's work was shown, he himself remarked that one of the sketches (and perhaps the best) was done in less than half an hour.

‘When he left Plymouth, he carried off all the results. We had reckoned that Johns who had provided all the materials, and had waited upon him devotedly, would at least have had a present of one or two of the sketches. This was not the case; but long afterwards, the great painter sent Johns in a letter a small oil sketch, not painted from nature, as a return for his kindness and assistance [see No. 225]. On my inquiring afterwards what had become of those sketches, Turner replied that they were worthless, in consequence, as he supposed of some defects in the preparation of the paper; all the grey tints, he observed, had nearly disappeared. Although I did not implicitly rely on that statement, I do not remember to have seen any of them afterwards’. These sketches are presumably Nos. 213–25b.

Although the support is described by Finberg as prepared board it seems rather to be a heavy paper, prepared on one side with an oil medium. In one case there is an unfinished composition on the unprepared verso (No. 214 [D09208 and D40096]); in another, Turner's only sketch is on the unprepared side of the paper (No. 220 [D09214]). According to Finberg the reverse of No. 213 [D09207], which is now stuck down, bears the printed title of what seems to be the 1808 Prospectus for The British Gallery of Pictures, not finally published until ten years later but for which J. Fittler engraved the Bridgewater Seapiece (No. 14) with the date 1 July 1812. This suggests that Turner, or rather Johns, may have torn suitably blank areas of paper from this publication and then prepared them for the sketches. All the sheets except No. 217 [D09211] measure approximately the same size, the exception being double that size, and most seem to have been torn down the left-hand edge as if from a book. However, No. 213 [D09207] is on a paler toned paper than the rest, which may therefore come from another source.

The identification of the views used here were kindly supplied by Dr S.A. Smiles of the Exeter College of Art and Design in a letter of 28 January 1984. All these sites seem to be within easy range of Plymouth.

Lit. Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years' Recollections 1858, i, pp. 199–205; Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 219–20; 1877, p. 153; Finberg 1909, i, pp. 364–5; 1961, pp. 197–203; Gage 1969, pp. 38–9; Wilton 1979, pp. 109–11.

220. [D09214] Plymouth from the North 1813


Oil approx. 4 × 9 1/4 (10 × 23·5), on paper, irregular, 6 5/16 × 10 1/2 (16 × 26·7)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856.

This sketch, less finished than the rest of the group, is painted on the unprepared side of the usual prepared paper. Previously known as ‘A Distant Town, perhaps Exeter’.

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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