Forming part of the Medway estuary in Kent, Stangate Creek facilitated the ‘convenient intercourse of commerce between neighbouring towns’, the author Barbara Hofland (1770–1844) writes.1 It is this enactment of composed and mutually beneficial commercial ‘intercourse’ which we find represented by Turner in this drawing.
The moored vessels depicted in the distance on the left are hulks: ships utilised for examining imported goods and quarantining potentially disease-bearing cargo and crew coming into Britain via the North Sea and English Channel. To their right, hazy in the middle distance, are decommissioned navy ships anchored near the top of the creek. In the foreground, rendered with precision in more saturated pigments, is a topsail barge, laden with barrels. A Bermuda sloop can be seen advancing behind it. Immediately in front of these vessels is a sailboat being navigated by two oarsmen. The group of logs, perhaps indicating a local woodworking industry, is probably their cargo. Floating on the placid surface of the Creek, their diagonal trajectory directs the eye towards the wide radiant sky and reflected glow of the sun on the water. Though not included in the original watercolour design, Turner replaced the bobbing logs with a buoy before the drawing was engraved.
The scene has a little of the compositional and atmospheric quality of Turner’s 1818 oil painting Dort, or Dortrecht, the Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut).2 In both works Turner recalls the handling of light and aerial perspective of the seventeenth-century Dutch landscapist Aelbert Cuyp.
According to Shanes, the watercolour drawing ‘is a dawn scene’, because ‘the hulks were stationed by Chetney Hill at the south-east of Stangate Creek, which runs along a north-south axis’, the view therefore being taken ‘in the direction of the rising sun’.3 The intervals between the moored vessels and those in languorous transit create a sense, the art historian Barry Venning writes, ‘that they maintain a permanent...vigil’, bathed in an elegiac light.4 Through Turner’s flattering lens this scene of workaday life becomes idyllic and eternal, possessing a ‘tranquil majesty’ as Hofland writes.5
Mrs [Barbara] Hofland, River Scenery, by Turner and Girtin, with Descriptions by Mrs. Hofland. Engraved by Eminent Engravers, from Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A. and the Late Thomas Girtin, London 1827, pp.3–4, pl.1.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.102 – 3, no.137.
Shanes 1990, p.115, no.90 (colour).
Venning 2003, p.172.
Hofland 1827, p.4.