Joseph Mallord William Turner

Rocks ?on the South Coast of Wales


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 293 × 460 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XLI 37

Catalogue entry

There has been general, if tentative, agreement that this drawing shows the Needles, off the Isle of Wight, rather than any formation of rocks on the South Welsh coast. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll discuss the drawing in relation to Turner’s first exhibited oil painting, Fishermen at Sea of 1796 (Tate T01585),1 which was traditionally thought to incorporate a view of the Needles, but it is extremely unlikely that this sheet belongs to a sufficiently early date to have served in the genesis of that picture, when the rest of the book, with which it is stylistically consistent, was evidently used in or around 1798. There is no evidence that Turner returned to the Isle of Wight in that year.
This drawing would constitute a very generalised and schematic depiction of the Needles and the identification is implausible on several counts, although there exist few other contenders. Finberg tentatively suggested Oxwich Bay in the Gower peninsular,2 but no feature corresponding to this exists there, and Turner is not known to have visited Gower. A cave-like arch in the cliffs at Barafundle Bay, on the south coast of Pembrokeshire, is a closer match, but also not altogether convincing; there are other curious rock formations in the neighbourhood of Tenby. If this depicts a view on the Pembrokeshire coast we must suppose a hitherto unsuspected detour from his accepted route in 1798; and two important large watercolours of Pembroke Castle exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1806 (National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto),3 might be invoked as evidence that the town and its neighbourhood had been recalled to his mind by a more recent visit than that of 1795; studies related to these occur in the Studies for Pictures sketchbook, in use around 1799–1802 (Tate D03994, D04103; Turner Bequest LXIX 1, 89). A more famous rock arch is Durdle Door, on the coast of Dorset near Lulworth, which perhaps corresponds most closely to the geology of Turner’s drawing, but it is hard to fit such a detour into his 1798 itinerary.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.1–2 no.1, pl.1 (colour).
Finberg 1909, I, p.99.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, respectively p.331 no.280, pl.64 (colour), no.281, reproduced.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

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