Joseph Mallord William Turner

Rough Sea with Wreckage


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 921 × 1226 mm
frame: 1074 × 1380 × 80 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

While parts of this painting such as the flotsam in the foreground are unfinished, the carefully and solidly modelled clouds are well developed. Turner has realised his theme by depicting a break in the clouds at the centre of the sky, through which a shaft of light illuminates an area of calmer waters and a white sail. However, it is uncertain whether the boat has escaped the storm, or is heading into danger.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

[from] Nos. 453–86: Late Unfinished Sea Pieces, c. 1830–45

THERE are two main problems about this group of works. The first is the question of dating: the dates adopted here are highly tentative and are based on the supposition that there is a logical progression from a more substantial, three-dimensional style to one that is more impressionistic and less solid, together with a feeling that Turner's colouring was perhaps at its strongest from the early to the mid 1830s. However, as will be noted, the compilers do not always agree on even the tentative datings given here. In any case, what may look like a less three-dimensional picture may in fact be merely a less finished picture.

The second problem is that of provenance and authenticity, in particular as it concerns smaller pictures outside the Turner Bequest, Nos. 474–84, together with the somewhat similar works no longer accepted as genuine, Nos. 555–8. That some such unfinished works escaped the Turner Bequest is certain, and a foundation is provided by those works that can be definitely or tentatively traced to John Pound, the son by her first marriage of Mrs Booth, Turner's mistress and housekeeper. In reviews of our first edition, exception was taken to some of our attributions by Luke Herrmann (Nos. 475, 478 and 484) and Jerrold Ziff (Nos. 480 and 481); interestingly, they do not agree. Of the works they doubt, No. 478 seems definitely to have been in the Pound sale at Christie's in 1865, while Nos. 480, 481 and 484 bear labels or are said to come from the Pound family.

However, one should never let an apparently sound provenance stand in the way of one's judgment based on the visual evidence, and in this case there is one further element, the fact that, from 1848, for apparently the only time in his life, Turner employed an assistant, Francis Sherrell. According to Bernard Falk (1938, p. 213), whose reference is based on an obituary in the Isle of Thanet Gazette for 23 September 1916, Turner gave Sherrell lessons in return for various services such as stretching his canvases and running errands; John Gage (1969, p. 171) suggests that Sherrell may also have cleaned some of the pictures in Turner's studio at the instigation of the dealer Thomas Griffith, who was active in trying to obtain sales for Turner at this time. Nothing further seems to be known about Sherrell save that he died at Thanet in 1916. It is perhaps an unworthy suspicion to suggest that he, more than anybody else, would have been in a position to imitate Turner's late style and that such imitations could have been left in Turner's studio and acquired by the Pound family.

Another suspicious circumstance is that, although Turner tended to work on standard sizes of canvas, only a few of those of this group of pictures that are outside the Turner Bequest can be matched with works in the Bequest: No. 472, near enough Turner's standard three feet by four feet; No. 474, much the same size as Nos. 457 [N02881] and 458 [N02882]; Nos. 475, 482, and 556a, close to No. 459 [N05495]; and Nos. 483 and 484, the same size as Nos. 485 [D36675] and 486.

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 62; Herrmann 1978, p. 773; Wilton 1979, p. 224; Ziff 1980, p. 167.

455. [N01980] Rough Sea with Wreckage c. 1830–35


Canvas, 36 1/4 × 48 1/4 (92 × 122·5); formerly on a larger stretcher approx. 41 7/8 × 50 1/4 (106 × 127·2)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (109, one of 36 each 4'0" by 3'0"; identified 1946 by chalk number); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1954.

Exh. New York 1966 (8, repr. in colour p. 20); Paris 1972 (270, repr.); Dresden (11, repr.) and Berlin (15) 1972; Lisbon 1973 (12, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (492); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (57, repr.); Paris 1983–4 (56, repr.); Stockholm 1984 (5, repr. in colour).

Lit. MacColl 1920, p. 29; Davies 1946, pp. 153–4, 188 n. 14; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 62, pl. 96; Gowing 1966, p. 36, repr. in colour p. 20.

MacColl's statement that this picture and No. 456 [N01987] are ‘founded upon two smaller pictures, “The Storm” and “The Day after the Storm”, said to have been suggested by the gale of November 21, 1840’ (Nos. 480 and 481) is incorrect, nor is the suggested dating at all likely. Turner's series of paintings of stormy seas seems to have been produced over a considerable period. This example, with its relatively solidly modelled clouds and waves making a disciplined composition notwithstanding the energy of the forces involved, can be tentatively dated to the early 1830s. It can in particular be related to Mouth of the Seine, Quille-Boeuf, exhibited in 1833 (No. 353, q.v. for a contrary view; to my mind the sky in Ostend (No. 407) completely lacks the body of the clouds in both Quille-Boeuf and Rough Sea with Wreckage).

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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