Joseph Mallord William Turner

Spithead: Two Captured Danish Ships Entering Portsmouth Harbour


Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1714 × 2337 mm
frame: 2105 × 2745 × 183 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner was as much a marine painter as a landscape artist; this is one of his history paintings set at sea. In 1807 he went to Portsmouth to see the arrival of two captured Danish ships and make sketches upon which this painting was based. The original title (as above) referred to this event.
By the time the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809, political outcry against the operation was such that he felt it advisable to change the title to ‘Boat’s crew recovering an anchor’.

Gallery label, September 2011

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Catalogue entry

80. [N00481] Spithead: Boat's Crew recovering an Anchor Exh. 1808

Canvas, 67 3/4 × 92 1/4 (171·5 × 235)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (62, ‘Boat's Crew running an anchor’ 7'7" × 5'9"—see below); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1949.

Exh. Turner's gallery 1808; R.A. 1809 (22); Turner's gallery 1810 (16); Tate Gallery 1931 (26, repr.).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 292–3; 1877, p. 429; Bell 1901, pp. 86–7 no. 113; Armstrong 1902, pp. 56, 231, repr. facing p. 66; Finberg 1910, pp. 53–4, 60; Whitley 1928, pp. 144, 146; Davies 1946, pp. 148, 187; H.F. Finberg 1951, pp. 384, 386; Finberg 1961, pp. 138, 147–8, 158–9, 171, 469 no. 125, 471 no. 146, 513 no. 157l; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 30, pl. 39; Lindsay 1966, p. 101; Gaunt 1971, p. 9.

In the 1854 Schedule of the Turner Bequest the size was first left blank and subsequently entered in pencil. In the 1856 Schedule ‘running’ was replaced on the manuscript by Wornum by ‘recovering’.

Described, almost certainly by John Landseer, in the Review of Publications of Art 1808 as ‘a larger picture [than that of ‘Runic superstitions’, No. 79 [N00464]] of two of the DANISH SHIPS which were seized at COPENHAGEN, entering Portsmouth Harbour, where Mr. Turner again displays with his powers as a painter, his great and various knowledge, and talent for marine composition’. The Danish fleet had surrendered on 7 September 1807 and on 14 October the first detachment set sail for England with an English escort. Turner went especially to Portsmouth to witness the arrival of the squadron, but unfortunately it was dispersed by bad weather, some ships arriving on 30 October, others on 1 November. Turner shows the two ships that arrived on the latter date, the Three Crowns and the Denmark. There are a number of on-the-spot drawings in the ‘Spithead’ sketchbook (C-1 to 18, 27 to 30).

By 1809, when the picture was exhibited at the R.A., there was such a political outcry against the Danish operation that Turner seems to have thought it expedient to change the title of the picture to ‘Spithead: Boat's crew recovering an anchor’. Nobody seems to have noticed the original subject, or the Danish flags flown below the English as a sign of submission, and indeed Robert Hunt, writing in the Examiner, referred to the ships as being English (Finberg 1961, p. 159, gives the date of the review as June 1809, but it cannot now be traced). In 1810 the picture was exhibited once again at Turner's gallery as ‘Spithead’. On this last occasion it aroused no critical interest in the press, but in 1809 it was generally praised by ‘Anthony Pasquin’ (John Williams): ‘This is one of the most perfect performances in the Exhibition, and in every point of view worthy of the Artist who traced it ... Mr. Turner appears to have taken Backhysen as his model; at any rate, his manner, if not imitative of that great naval painter, possesses a similar direction both in composition and colouring. When Mr. Turner first became noticeable for his talents, he seemed more desirous of surprising us, by his bold eccentricities, than of pleasing us by the chastity of his arrangements ... but he now seems disposed to reform those excesses and flights of imagination, and fall back, like a true soldier, into the ranks of reason. We cannot dismiss this subject without observing that the transparency of the water, in this view, is beautifully managed; and Mr. Turner may become, if he pleases, the first marine painter in the world; he has more correctness, though less brilliancy, than Vernet, and appears to regard nature with an eye so keenly inquisitorial, that his representations must be valuable, provided that his fancy is not permitted to neutralize the effort’ (Morning Herald, 4 May 1809). On the other hand Farington, dining with Mr Augustus Phipps on 30 April 1809 recorded Mrs Phipps' opinion: ‘The water in His [Turner's] large sea piece she thought not like water, not liquid, and in all His pictures there is a want of finishing.’

This picture was priced at £400 in a note, probably of c. 1810, in Turner's ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII-36; for the date see Nos. 53 [T03869] and 56 [N00474]).

There is a short crease running in from the left-hand edge near the top of the canvas, caused by an old relining.

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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