Joseph Mallord William Turner

Sunrise with Sea Monsters


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 914 × 1219 mm
frame: 1066 × 1373 × 75 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Although this unfinished painting has come to be known as Sunrise with Sea Monsters, the obscure pink shape at the lower centre of the canvas probably depicts fish; indeed a red and white float and part of a net can be seen nearby.

Commentators have related the picture to Turner’s whaling scenes, and other paintings with fish in the foreground from the 1840s. But the subject of fishing was of interest to Turner throughout his career, as were remarkable sunsets and sunrises such as the dawn depicted here.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

[from] Nos. 453–86: Late Unfinished Sea Pieces, c. 1830–45

THERE are two main problems about this group of works. The first is the question of dating: the dates adopted here are highly tentative and are based on the supposition that there is a logical progression from a more substantial, three-dimensional style to one that is more impressionistic and less solid, together with a feeling that Turner's colouring was perhaps at its strongest from the early to the mid 1830s. However, as will be noted, the compilers do not always agree on even the tentative datings given here. In any case, what may look like a less three-dimensional picture may in fact be merely a less finished picture.

The second problem is that of provenance and authenticity, in particular as it concerns smaller pictures outside the Turner Bequest, Nos. 474–84, together with the somewhat similar works no longer accepted as genuine, Nos. 555–8. That some such unfinished works escaped the Turner Bequest is certain, and a foundation is provided by those works that can be definitely or tentatively traced to John Pound, the son by her first marriage of Mrs Booth, Turner's mistress and housekeeper. In reviews of our first edition, exception was taken to some of our attributions by Luke Herrmann (Nos. 475, 478 and 484) and Jerrold Ziff (Nos. 480 and 481); interestingly, they do not agree. Of the works they doubt, No. 478 seems definitely to have been in the Pound sale at Christie's in 1865, while Nos. 480, 481 and 484 bear labels or are said to come from the Pound family.

However, one should never let an apparently sound provenance stand in the way of one's judgment based on the visual evidence, and in this case there is one further element, the fact that, from 1848, for apparently the only time in his life, Turner employed an assistant, Francis Sherrell. According to Bernard Falk (1938, p. 213), whose reference is based on an obituary in the Isle of Thanet Gazette for 23 September 1916, Turner gave Sherrell lessons in return for various services such as stretching his canvases and running errands; John Gage (1969, p. 171) suggests that Sherrell may also have cleaned some of the pictures in Turner's studio at the instigation of the dealer Thomas Griffith, who was active in trying to obtain sales for Turner at this time. Nothing further seems to be known about Sherrell save that he died at Thanet in 1916. It is perhaps an unworthy suspicion to suggest that he, more than anybody else, would have been in a position to imitate Turner's late style and that such imitations could have been left in Turner's studio and acquired by the Pound family.

Another suspicious circumstance is that, although Turner tended to work on standard sizes of canvas, only a few of those of this group of pictures that are outside the Turner Bequest can be matched with works in the Bequest: No. 472, near enough Turner's standard three feet by four feet; No. 474, much the same size as Nos. 457 [N02881] and 458 [N02882]; Nos. 475, 482, and 556a, close to No. 459 [N05495]; and Nos. 483 and 484, the same size as Nos. 485 [D36675] and 486.

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 62; Herrmann 1978, p. 773; Wilton 1979, p. 224; Ziff 1980, p. 167.

473. [N01990] Sunrise with Sea Monsters c. 1845


Canvas, 36 × 48 (91·5 × 122)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1906.

Exh. Amsterdam, Berne, Paris, Brussels, Liege (40), Venice and Rome (49) 1947–8; New York 1966 (36, repr. in colour p. 47); Paris 1972 (275, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (507); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (81).

Lit. MacColl 1920, p. 30; Gowing 1966, pp. 38, 48, repr. in colour p. 47; Brill 1969, p. 23; Reynolds 1969, p. 198.

Nearer to the Whalers pictures of 1845 and 1846 (see Nos. 414 [N00545] –415, 423 [N00546] and 426 [N00547]) than to the Slavers of 1840 (No. 385) and therefore probably to be dated c. 1845. There is a drawing of a fairly similar composition in the ‘Whalers’ sketchbook (CCCLIII-21) and the group of sea monsters is also related to Turner's various studies of fish, such as that in the Victoria and Albert Museum (repr. in colour Butlin 1962, pl. 24). John Gage has suggested (exh. cat., Paris 1972) that Turner's interest in the fantastic and monstrous aspects of fish was further suggested by ‘Walk the Third: Summer— Moonlight’ in the Rev. Thomas Gisborne's Walks in a Forest, published in 1794 but quoted by Turner in connection with his Dawn of Christianity, exhibited in 1841 (No. 394).

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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