Joseph Mallord William Turner

?Rochester Castle and Bridge


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 356 × 510 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 351

Display caption

This view links strongly to the scene drawn carefully in no.57 (showcase), although Turner has here shifted the castle and town to the left. The small, pointed area of red on the left perhaps summarily indicates the low spire of Rochester cathedral. The lighting of the moon down its right-hand side indicates a sunset timing, while the fishbone-like diagonal strokes of light tone above the bridge presumably indicate clouds catching the final rays of the sun.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Eric Shanes has suggested that this is a study for an undeveloped subject for Turner’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales, showing Rochester Castle and Cathedral in Kent, looking south across the River Medway, with the medieval bridge on the right.1 The latter has since been replaced by two road bridges and a railway bridge running in parallel. Turner had drawn a comparable view in the Medway sketchbook of 1820 (Tate D17395; Turner Bequest CXCIX 18a),2 which informed the 1822 watercolour Rochester, on the River Medway (Tate D18156; Turner Bequest CCVIII W),3 engraved in 1824 for the Rivers of England (Tate impressions: T04796–T04798, T06370), where the bridge is secondary to the busy shipping in the foreground.
A detailed pencil drawing from 1794 (Tate D00159; Turner Bequest XV C) shows the scene from a similar angle, focussing more on the massive piers, and is possibly a source for the present study, although here, assuming the subject is Rochester, the luminous white form of the castle is placed further left than in reality as a counterpoint to the dark bridge at sunset with the crescent moon above.4
Gerald Wilkinson compared the ‘colossal power of the treatment of the bridge’ with Turner’s unfinished oil Rocky Bay with Figures of about 1827–30 (Tate N01989);5 he also noted a ‘ghostly, very tall church tower [presumed here to be Rochester Castle] ... a sickle moon and the geometry of some alto-cumulus cloud. Perhaps a sense of place is less important here than the fine, sculptural idea’.6 This composition has also been compared, by Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, to Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. The Triumphal Bridge of the Cæsars Restored, exhibited in 1839 (Tate N00523),7 as showing ‘a bridge with much the same general effect and mood as the painting, though with none of the classical detail’.8
See also the introductions to the present subsection of identified but unrealised subjects and the overall England and Wales ‘colour beginnings’ grouping to which this work has been assigned. For colour studies for compositions with Rochester in the distance, see Tate D25231 and D25286 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 109, 164).
Shanes 1997, p.71.
See ibid. p.71 no.57, reproduced, as D17394.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.385 no.735, reproduced.
See Shanes 1997, p.71 for the time of day.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.276 no.434, pl.439 (colour).
Wilkinson 1975, p.[113].
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.231–2 no.378, pl.382 (colour).
Ibid., p.232.

Matthew Imms
March 2013

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