Joseph Mallord William Turner

Shields Lighthouse


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 234 × 283 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 308

Technique and condition

There is no drawing in this colour study on white wove paper. Dark washes of Prussian blue were stippled onto dry paper for the sky, washed over with purplish-toned brown ochre to create greyer tones. The lighter blue washes in Prussian blue were applied to wetter paper. Washing-out was used for the moon and its reflection, leaving sufficient cleared white paper for the yellow radiance round the moon to be applied in chrome yellow, without the danger that it would overlap with a blue wash and appear green, not yellow. Vermilion mixed with Prussian blue was used for the most crimson clouds.
The sheet has been displayed with the outer edges coved by a window mount, and the central area has yellowed irreversibly. The colour trials on the outer edges were protected by the mount, and retain their original blue, whereas the main image now appears greener than intended.

Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Catalogue entry

(see main catalogue text)
The publication of this subject as ‘Shields Lighthouse’ first occurs in Rawlinson’s catalogue of Turner’s engravings,1 presumably by association with the superficially similar moonlit composition of Shields, on the River Tyne, engraved in 1823 for the Rivers of England from a watercolour of that year (Tate D18155; Turner Bequest CCVIII V).2 The lighthouse shown in the latter appears to be the Low Light Tower, on a square plan with a broad, shallow upper level for the windows revealing its light. It still stands on the Fish Quay at North Shields, on the north bank of the River Tyne east of Newcastle, and is shown in the Rivers of England design from upstream with the busy industrial South Shields foreshore on the right. The lighthouse in the present composition appears to be a more generic, tapering tower with a tall glass lantern, seen on the horizon across an empty bay or estuary with little else indicated by way of topographical context.
The composition was engraved in mezzotint,3 traditionally ascribed to Turner himself (see the ‘Little Liber’ introduction). The steel plate was found in his studio after his death, ‘completely corroded’.4 Dupret notes that it was sold in ‘1873–74’, without giving further details; possibly it was the plate called ‘Seapiece, with Shipping at Night’ in the 24 March 1873 Christie’s sale of prints from Turner’s studio5 (see the Introduction). The development of the design through three trial proof stages is described by Rawlinson and Dupret, who mention the present watercolour as the source.6 At first the moon was very large and bright, and surrounded by a clear-cut halo and rays, as in the watercolour; then a buoy was added in the right foreground (not present in the watercolour) and other details were toned down and lightened; finally, the diameter of the moon was reduced. Luke Herrmann has noted that this process shows ‘Turner’s skill in developing his ideas direct on the steel plate’7 here and elsewhere in the ‘Little Liber’. Tate’s impression (T04915) is a late nineteenth-century one, and is very muted and dim due to the poor condition of the plate.8
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908,, and vol.II 1913, pp.210, 386–7 no.801.
Wilton 1979, p.384 no.732, reproduced.
Rawlinson I 1908,, and II 1913, pp.210, 386–7 no.801.
Rawlinson II 1913, p.387.
The First Portion of the Valuable Engravings from the Works of the Late J.M.W. Turner, R.A. ..., Christie, Manson & Woods, London 24 March 1873 (927).
Rawlinson II 1913, p.385; Dupret 1989, p.36.
Herrmann 1990, p.149.
See Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.60.
Wilton 1980, p.160.
See Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.59.
Warrell 1999, p.81; see also Warrell 1991, p.32.
See Andrew Wilton, in Gage, Ziff and Alfrey 1983, p.232; see also Jack Lindsay, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work: A Critical Biography, London 1966, ill.26, as ‘Colour Structure: Moon burst’, reproduced together with variant Little Liber design (Tate D25314; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 192, ill.27, as ‘Moon and water’).
See Warrell 1991, p.38; and 2004, p.83.
Warrell 2004, p.83.
‘Catalogue of the Sketches and Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Exhibited in Marlborough House in the Year 1857–8’ in Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.280 (partly quoted in Warrell 2004, p.83).
See Warrell 1991, p.38.

Matthew Imms
November 2011

Finberg 1909, II, p.837.

Read full Catalogue entry


You might like

In the shop