Joseph Mallord William Turner

Ship-building (An Old Oak Dead), for Rogers’s ‘Poems’


In Tate Britain

Turner's Modern World

Last chance
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 191 × 248 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 175

Catalogue entry

This vignette, Ship-building (An Old Oak Dead), was published in the 1834 edition of Rogers’s Poems and appears as the tail-piece to a poem entitled, To an Old Oak.1 It is a pair with another illustration, An Old Oak, which appears as the head-piece to the same poem (see Tate D27691; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 174). Both prints were engraved by Edward Goodall.2 The poem describes the life of an old oak tree and Turner’s illustrations correspondingly show the tree in life and in death. The first vignette accompanying Rogers’s verse shows the tree at the centre of English village life. This scene, however, shows the trunk of the oak felled and stripped and carted off to a naval dockyard:
Round thee, alas, no shadows move!
From thee no sacred murmurs breathe!
Yet within thee, thyself a grove,
Once did the eagle scream above,
And the wolf howl beneath
(Poems, pp.176–7)
Turner marked this stanza with pencil in the margin of his own copy of the 1827 edition of Poems (see Tate D36330; Turner Bequest CCCLXVI p.188). As Adele Holcomb has noted, a small thumbnail sketch on the opposite page shows the skeletal branches of a tree devoid of leaves (Tate D36330; Turner Bequest CCCLXVI p.189).3 This seems to suggest that the artist was originally planning to illustrate the final verse:
Thy singed top and branches bare
Now straggle in the evening–sky;
And the wan moon wheels round to glare
On the long corse that shivers there
Of him who came to die!
(Poems, p.178)
Ultimately however, he opted for a more positive angle, depicting the frame of a large ship under construction from the wood supplied by the old oak. The tree’s death is not in vain, for it is soon to begin a proud new life as part of the timbers of a vessel in the British navy:
Father of many a forest deep,
Whence many a navy thunder-fraught!
Erst in thy acorn-cells asleep,
Soon destined o’er the world to sweep,
Opening new spheres of thought!
(Poems, p.177)
Judy Egerton has suggested that the buildings beyond may depict the naval dockyard at Chatham.4
Samuel Rogers, Poems, London 1834, p.178.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.392. There are three impressions in Tate’s collection (T05118, T05119, and T05797).
Holcomb 1966, p.88.
Egerton, Wyld and Roy 1995, p.20.
Omer 1975, p.701.
Ibid., pp.20–1.
Holcomb 1966, p.99 note 32.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

Revised by Nicola Moorby
August 2008

Read full Catalogue entry


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