Joseph Mallord William Turner

St David’s Head from Porthsallie Bay


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 201 × 265 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XXVI 29

Catalogue entry

This drawing, unusually, was extracted from the sketchbook by Turner himself and given a washline mount. Finberg’s account of its original condition and Ruskin’s attempt to ‘conceal’ its true subject illuminates the changes of curatorial approach to the Turner Bequest over the course of a few decades:
The rocks and distance were, I think, coloured on the spot – the procedure adopted in pages 20, 22, and 27. The sky, foreground, and figures were probably added afterwards. Then the leaf was cut from the book, laid down on a piece of board, and decorative borders were added, almost certainly by the artist himself. The title of the drawing, “St David’s Head”, was printed in pencil, also by the artist, and on the margin above he wrote the additional information “Porthsallie Bay”.
The drawing, unlike most of Turner’s sketches, was evidently intended for sale. But it either remained unsold, or, if sold, was bought back afterwards, for it was in the artist’s possession at his death.
Its fate, after it had become the property of the nation, throws a rather unpleasant light on Mr. Ruskin’s conception of the task of arranging and cataloguing these sketches and drawings. It was included in the first 460 drawings chosen by Mr. Ruskin for public exhibition. But Turner’s carefully-ruled and tinted border did not meet with approval, so a cheap, common-looking mount was cut to cover it up. The new mount was too small, for it covered not only the border but also half an inch and more on each of the four sides of the drawing itself, thus destroying the balance of the composition and the general effect of the design. Turner’s mount was not only covered up, it was defaced with liberal daubs of glue to hold the cheap and nasty mount of commerce in position. ... the drawing was afterwards recklessly exposed to the light, which bleached it, while the parts protected (unintentionally) by the mount retained their full force and vigour.
Having got Turner’s tell-tale title concealed in this way, – for the title was printed on the border – Mr. Ruskin was free to fancy anything he liked a about the subject-matter. The rocks, though they are not at all like those in Plymouth Sound, reminded him of the Mew Stone. The drawing was therefore christened ‘The Mewstone, Plymouth Sound’, it was dated ‘about 1791’, and the public were told that it was ‘Interesting as the first thought of one of his (Turner’s) best known works’.1
Finberg 1918, pp.98–9.
Ibid., pl.XXXII.

Andrew Wilton
April 2012

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