Portsmouth has been one of the principal naval bases on the southern coast of England since at least the sixteenth century when, in 1544, Henry VIII built Southsea Castle (a Device fort designed to guard entrances to the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour). Decreed the home of the Royal Navy by the Tudor monarch, the harbour was also departure point for Admiral Nelson’s 1805 defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. Turner here pictorialises George III’s triumphal description of the port as the ‘glory and bulwark of these Kingdoms’.1
A three-masted man-of-war, illuminated by diagonal beams of sunlight, is depicted leaving the harbour: an icon of British naval prowess. The stature and presence of the battleship is amplified by the relative size of the sailboat in the foreground and cutter at the right. Eric Shanes writes that ‘the choppy water...adds a constancy of motion to the scene, and the curved, rushing sweep of the wave on the left is subtly accentuated by the roundness of the nearby buoy’ as well as the curvature of the billowing sails.2
Behind the cutter, at the far right, is the Admiralty Semaphore: ‘a tower bearing a signalling device that could communicate with the Admiralty in London in under three minutes by means of a series of intermediate relay signals’.3 The signalling figure waving the straw hat in the rowing boat is, according to Eric Shanes, ‘visually connect[ed]’ with the Semaphore because of the ‘diagonal line of shadow in the sky beyond’ and the ‘diagonal line of the cutter’s main-yard’.4 The sailor waves to the crew on the cutter, an optimistic gesture of camaraderie and mutual respect. Shanes also notes that ‘the curve of the cutter’s mainsail also exactly repeats the curvature of the sailor’s waving arm’. In all, these instances of compositional mirroring make manifest the importance of communication at sea.
This sense of naval solidarity notwithstanding, John Ruskin writes that moments of disorder underpin Turner’s Portsmouth. ‘It is a very curious instance’, he writes, ‘of that habit of Turner’s...of never painting a ship quite in good order.’ Ruskin continues: ‘on showing this plate the other day to a naval officer, he complained of it, first that “the jib (see footnote: ‘the sail seen, edge on, like a white sword, at the head of the ship’) would not be wanted with the wind blowing out of harbour”, and secondly, that “a man-of-war would never have her fore-top-gallant sail set, and her main and mizen top-gallants furled”’.5 For Ruskin:
‘An Overview of Portsmouth History’, Welcome to Portsmouth, http://www
.welcometoportsmouth, accessed 1 March 2013. .co .uk /portsmouth%20history .html
Shanes 1990, p.135, no.107 (colour).
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.63.
Eric Shanes, Evelyn Joll, Ian Warrell and others, Turner: The Great Watercolours, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001, p.159, no.60.
Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.56, no.46 reproduced.
Wilton 1979, p.354, no.477.