Joseph Mallord William Turner



Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 902 × 1210 mm
frame: 1110 × 1405 × 90 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This is another canvas on which Turner has painted only the simple foundations of an image. The warm tones of the churned up foreground suggest that he intended it to be a marine subject. Had he decided to exhibit the painting, he would probably have introduced wind-battered vessels and perhaps elements of landscape. Without them, we have only the brushwork and nuances of colour to help us make  sense of Turner’s dematerialised scene.

For conservation reasons this picture cannot be displayed without a frame.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

Seascape is painted on a fine-woven linen canvas prepared with a smooth, creamy white chalk priming. The first layers of paint are so thin as to be stains on the priming. Turner’s paint handling technique is loose in style. Paint is brushed on, spread with a knife, then wiped and scraped away to leave thin smears of colour. Then both sky and sea are painted on top in broad smudges of colour applied with a palette knife and manipulated with both ends of the brush.

The sky is opaque. Thick, paste-like paint is tempered with thin glazes seemingly rubbed into the texture of the impasto to leave a slight suggestion of colour. Elsewhere well-diluted paint is applied in a fast scrubbing gesture leaving arcs of grey matter.

The sea is transparent and now appears a rich brown in colour. Originally, it is likely that the sea was glassy in appearance, probably thick transparent textured paint tinted by subtle hues of blue derived from fine hatched strokes underneath and stained by yellow and greys from fine glazes on top. The thickest impasto may be a megilp, a mixture of oil and resin.

Smudges of white sky paint dot the lower centre of the sea but whether this is intentional is difficult to ascertain. The paint is indented with lines where this painting rested against another while still wet. A fine brown dirt layer is partially covered by strokes of white paint. It appears that Turner left any dirt that collected on the painting and simply painted over it.

The painting is not varnished. It was glue/paste lined, to mend small tears, and cleaned in the 1940s while at the National Gallery. In 1964 the upper layer of surface dirt was removed, losses filled, and retouched. It was framed and glazed at this date.

May 2000

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.

465. [N05515] Seascape c. 1835–40


Canvas, 35 1/2 × 47 5/8 (90 × 121)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1947.

Lit. Davies 1946, p. 164.

The sky was painted at two distinct periods, a largish area along the horizon (save at the right) and extending diagonally upwards towards the top left-hand corner, with a smaller area on the right, having been added after the first layer had suffered some discoloration; the later work was probably done with a palette knife. Some of the original paint has been lost along the right-hand edge.

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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