Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Bass Rock


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 200 x 264 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 205

Catalogue entry

The Bass Rock is an island formed of volcanic rock about a mile out in the Firth of Forth, some three miles from North Berwick in East Lothian, to the north-east of Edinburgh. In about 1824 Turner produced a watercolour design showing it isolated in rough seas (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight),1 which was engraved in 1826 for Walter Scott’s Provincial Antiquities of Scotland (see the Introduction to this section; Tate impressions: T04499–T04501, T06066). There are many drawings of the dramatic feature in the 1818 Bass Rock and Edinburgh sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CLXV), but the design appears to derive in particular from two pencil studies from the south on a page in the 1822 King’s Visit to Edinburgh sketchbook (Tate D17646; Turner Bequest CC 79), with fortifications at the south-western end to the fore.
In recognising the subject of this ‘colour beginning’, Ian Warrell noted the ‘fluency’ of Turner’s application, ‘almost as an echo of the violent storm it depicts engulfing the rock’, while being ‘careful to anticipate the general colour structure of the final picture, and the rock stands out from the darkness of the surrounding elements’,2 although Eric Shanes has observed ‘much greyer weather’3 here than in the finished watercolour, with its central band of strong blues and a jagged bolt of lightning entering from the top right for good measure. He goes on: ‘Here Turner depicts the island catching the full force of an easterly wind, with clouds emerging from its leeward side and spume issuing from its summit. As in the final watercolour, the rock is viewed across a heavy swell’.4 Tate D35973 (Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 130) is a contemporary study exploring variations in the effects of colour, light and weather on the monolithic form.
A work showing the rock by moonlight last surfaced in 1905;5 another watercolour previously thought to show the rock in a storm6 is now considered a view of the Mew Stone, off the Devon coast near Plymouth, as set out in the Introduction to the Devonshire Rivers, No.3, and Wharfedale sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CXXXIV) from which it originated, in the present author’s ‘West Country and Yorkshire 1814–17’ section of this catalogue.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.426 no.1069, pl.173 (colour).
Warrell 1991, p.28.
Shanes 1997, p.19.
Ibid., p.57; see also Thomson 1999, p.94.
See Wilton 1979, p.426 under no.1069, and Thomson 1999, p.94.
Wilton 1979, p.389 no.768, reproduced, as ‘Storm off Margate’, reproduced; see also p.426 under no.1069; see Thomson 1999, p.94.

Matthew Imms
July 2016

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