Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for ‘The Loss of an East Indiaman’


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite, watercolour and chalk on paper
Support: 311 × 460 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCVI N

Technique and condition

This colour beginning on white wove paper was worked very rapidly and without wetting the paper first, which makes it possible to built up intense colours quickly. It includes some colour trials on the right edge: unusually they are paler than the intensity in the main image. Some washes of colour in this work are now almost invisible, yet can still be seen by their surviving fluorescence when the sheet is viewed in ultraviolet light. For example: a wash of vermilion mixed with red lake, most likely madder by its fluorescence, is present in the sky, which would have looked more purplish in tone, and therefore more threatening. Blue indigo was applied quite heavily in places. At this time, Turner used Prussian blue regularly in order to achieve an intense and bright blue, and it had begun to supersede the traditional indigo in his palette, but in this case indigo gave the desired dramatic effect without the need to add black to a brighter blue.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Catalogue entry

This ‘colour beginning’ has long been recognised as relating to a watercolour of about 1818, The Loss of an East Indiaman, c.1818 (The Higgins, Bedford),1 which was painted for Turner’s close friend and major patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire2 (see David Hill’s overall Introduction to the present section). Of a similar size, it effectively forms a pair3 with the breezy daylight scene of warships in the watercolour A First Rate Taking in Stores (also Higgins collection),4 reportedly painted in the course of a few hours at Farnley one day in November 1818 when Fawkes is said to have spontaneously requested ‘a drawing of the ordinary dimensions which will give some idea of the size of a man of war’.5 A third watercolour of about the same size, also owned by Fawkes, Man-of-War, Making a Signal for a Pilot off the Tagus (Museums Sheffield),6 may have been part of the same campaign of work.7
While shipwrecks are a recurring theme in Turner’s work, Eric Shanes as discussed the particular subject of the finished East Indiaman watercolour at length, suggesting that it shows the wreck of the Halsewell off Dorset in January 1786, a notorious, prolonged disaster involving the loss of over 160 passengers and crew, which had been depicted at the time by several visual artists in addition to the published written accounts.8 Turner himself referred to in a manuscript poem relating to his 1811 West Country tour; see the Devonshire Coast, No.1 sketchbook (Tate D08474; Turner Bequest CXXIII 56a).9 In the finished design, the rolling deck is carried further up towards the top right, providing an arena for scores of clinging and scrambling figures;10 Andrew Wilton has observed: ‘As an exercise in portraying the horror of a sea storm it is one of Turner’s most interesting experiments, for it concentrates on the plight of the ship’s crew almost to the exclusion of the sea itself’.11 Shanes has described the powerful chiaroscuro of the present study,12 while Adele Holcombe has written of its elemental effect, ‘showing a leviathan half in shadow that appears to roll within a trough of darkness, is one of the most impressive’ of the colour beginnings: ‘It belongs to that category of Turner’s work which fundamentally extends the experience and idea of the sublime by implications of physical immediacy ...; by the membranous texture of the image which recalls the most primary of physical boundaries, that which separates the body from all that is outside it.’13
Wilton 1979, p.357, as ‘Loss of a man-of-war’, albeit noting the subject ‘may be rather “The wreck of an East Indiaman”’.
See Finberg 1909, I, p.600, Wroot 1924, p.241, Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Wilton 1977, p.29, Wilton 1979, p.357, Wilton 1980, p.147, Wilton 1983, p.205, Perkins 1990, p.29, Shanes 2000, p.134, and Moorby 2007, p.22.
See Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Perkins 1990, p.29, Warrell 2993, p.291, Warrell 1994, p.108, and Shanes 2000, p.135.
Wilton 1979, p.357, no.499, reproduced.
As noted from family anecdotes by Mrs Edith Mary Fawkes, the wife of Fawkes’s grandson, as transcribed in Shanes 2001, p.13; see ibid., pp.13–15 for the fullest technical account.
Wilton 1979, p.357 no.501, reproduced.
See ibid., and Wilton 1977, p.29; but see also David Hill in Hill, Stanley Warburton, Mary Tussey and others, Turner in Yorkshire, exhibition catalogue, York City Art Gallery 1980, p.57 no.85, suggesting a date of about 1809.
See Shanes 1997, pp.34–5; see also Wilton 1980, p.147, and Joll 2002, p.272.
See Shanes 1997, pp.34, 91 note 7.
See ibid., p.33.
Wilton 1980, p.147; see also Wilton 1983, p.205, Warrell 1993, p.291, and Warrell 1994, p.108.
See Shanes 1997, pp.33–4.
Holcomb 1983, p.53.
Shanes 2001, p.14; see also Shanes 2000, p.135, Brown 2007a, p.13, and Brown 2007b, p.8.
Joll 2002, p.272.
See Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Wilton 1979, p.357, Wilton 1980, p.147, Wilton 1983, p.205, and Hill 1997, p.7.
See Finberg 1909, I, p.600, Wroot 1924, p.241, Moorby 2007, p.22, and Rosenberg 2007, p.115.
See Perkins 1990, p.29, Brown 2007a, p.13, and Brown 2007b, pp.8, 26,
See Wroot 1924, p.241, Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Wilton 1983, p.205, Perkins 1990, p.29, and Shanes 1997, p.33.
See for example Wroot 1924, p.241.
Joll 2002, p.272.
Wilton 1977, p.29.
Wilton 1980, p.147.
Finberg 1909, II, p.814.
See for example Shanes 1997, pp.11, 18, 32 note 17, 33, Brown 2007b, pp.8, 26, and Moorby 2007, p.22.
See also Eric Shanes, ‘Beginnings’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.21–3; among many other accounts, see also Wilton 1974, p.26; and Wilton 1979, p.187.
Hill 1997, p.7.

Matthew Imms
September 2016

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