Joseph Mallord William Turner

Sunset: A Fish Market on the Beach


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour, gouache and pen and watercolour on paper
Support: 254 × 208 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 302

Catalogue entry

Among frequent maritime and coastal subjects, the present work’s theme was a longstanding if occasional one for Turner, in paintings such as Fishmarket on the Beach of about 1802–4 (currently untraced),1 Sun Rising through Vapour; Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish, exhibited in 1807 (Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London),2 and Fishmarket on the Sands – Hastings?, exhibited in 1810 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri),3 as well as watercolours including Fishmarket on the Sands, ?Hastings of 1810 (currently untraced),4 Hastings: Fishmarket on the Sands of 1824 (Hastings Museum and Art Gallery),5 and Fish Market on the Sands of as late as about 1840 (private collection).6
The precise purpose of this particular treatment, with its unusual upright formant, is unclear. While Lindsay Stainton speculated that it might relate to various illustration projects of the 1830s, the ‘faintly Venetian appearance of the boats’ suggesting a link to Samuel Rogers or Byron,7 Eric Shanes has proposed that it belongs with four vignettes with fish and shellfish in the foreground and the sea in various moods beyond (Tate D25465, D25466, D27520, D27521; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 342, 343, CCLXXX 3, 4), perhaps from the early 1840s.8 Shanes notes: ‘According to the Schedule of the Turner Bequest drawn up by the artist’s executors in 1854, the “4 finished vignettes of fish” were made for Turners patron, the whaling magnate Elhanan Bicknell,9 who possibly commissioned them to beautify some proposed book on sea fishing that remained unwritten or unpublished.’10 If so, it is unclear why they remained with Turner,11 but it is possible that they were intended to act as chapter headings,12 with the present work as a frontispiece.13 It is here dated to about 1835, in line with Meredith Gamer’s entries for the four vignettes.14
In his 1857 book The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin declared a general principal that ‘however white an object may be, there is always some small point of it whiter than the rest’:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.110 no.145, pl.150.
Ibid., pp.53–4 no.69, pl.79.
Ibid., pp.75–6 no.105, pl.112.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.357 no.503.
Ibid., p.358 no.510.
Ibid., p.408 no.926, reproduced, as c.1830s.
Stainton 1982, p.74.
See Shanes 1997, pp.29, 102.
See Evelyn Joll, ‘Bicknell, Elhanan (1788–1861)’ in Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.24–5.
Shanes 1997, p.29; see also Jan Piggott, Turner’s Vignettes, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.90 under no.54.
See Shanes 1997, p.30.
See Piggott 1993, p.90.
See Shanes 1997, pp.97, 99.
On possible later dating, see also Ian Warrell in David Blayney Brown, Sarah Skinner and Warrell, Coasting: Turner and Bonington on the Shores of the Channel, exhibition catalogue, Nottingham Castle 2008, pp.63, 64 note 28.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.66.
Ibid., pp.66–7 footnote.
Quoted in Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Manchester and New York 2007, pp.121–2 note 23.

Matthew Imms
September 2016

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