Joseph Mallord William Turner

Ship in a Storm


On loan

Turner’s House (Twickenham, UK): Turner’s English Coasts

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 241 × 300 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 309 a

Display caption

In the mid-1820s Turner worked on a set of twelve mezzotint plates, known as the Little Liber, or So-called Sequels to the Liber Studiorum. Relatively little is known about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the images, which all explore the dramatic effects of natural light.

At least half of subjects are concerned with direct observation of the sea. The watercolour studies on which the prints were based are unusually freely executed and unresolved. When painting for translation into black and white prints Turner usually provided a greater level of detail to guide the engravers.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

(see main catalogue text)
Luke Herrmann has observed that the rough pencil indications of the ship in this composition were made over the watercolour waves, already ‘a telling representation of the vortex effect of a storm at sea’,1 echoing Andrew Wilton’s comparison2 with Turner’ painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, exhibited in 1842 (Tate N00530).3 As Ian Warrell has noted, the Shields Lighthouse-related ‘Little Liber’ study of the moon behind clouds (Tate D25314; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 192) is similar technically in the addition of the slight pencil outline of a ship, the setting and effect being the primary concerns.4 Andrew Wilton has described the ‘opposing media’ of the ship and the sea, perhaps suggesting their ‘antagonism’;5 in the related ‘Little Liber’ mezzotint the ship is transformed into a solid black silhouette, evoking ‘greater horror’,6 to ‘considerably more menacing effect’7 than in this relatively pale watercolour. The numbers inscribed here may correspond to the broad tonal registers of the print.8
The mezzotint9 is traditionally ascribed to Turner himself (see the ‘Little Liber’ introduction). The steel plate was found in his studio after his death, from which some impressions were printed by Sir Francis Seymour Haden before it was sold to the London art dealers Colnaghi in 1873, who had the plate reworked before taking further impressions;10 possibly it was the plate called ‘Seapiece, with Shipping at Night’ in the 24 March 1873 Christie’s sale of prints from Turner’s studio11 (again, see the Introduction). Colnaghi’s presented it to the British Museum, London, in 1942. Turner’s development of the design through two trial proof stages is described by Rawlinson and Dupret, who mention the present watercolour as the source.12 The second stage consisted in adding definition to the ship and clouds.
The watercolour was exhibited at Marlborough House, London, in 1857 as no.114 (subsequently given the National Gallery number 572). John Ruskin noted:
Herrmann 1990, p.152.
Wilton 1980, p.149; see also Dupret 1989, p.38.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.246–7 no.398, pl.404 (colour).
See Warrell 1991, p.38.
Wilton 1980, p.149.
Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.61.
See Wilton 1980, p.149; and Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.61.
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, 387 no.803.
Rawlinson II 1913, p.387; Dupret 1989, p.38.
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.387; Dupret 1989, p.38.
‘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; see also Warrell 2004, p.83.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.280 note 2.
Finberg 1909, II, p.838.

Matthew Imms
November 2011

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