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: 219 × 294 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 130

Catalogue entry

In a first attempt to identify the subject of this ‘colour beginning’ described by Finberg as a ‘Sea piece: Stormy Evening’,1 John Gage tentatively suggested Staffa,2 the rocky island of the Inner Hebrides which Turner visited on his Scottish tour of 1831; he exhibited the loosely comparable painting Staffa, Fingal’s Cave the following year, with its dramatic sunset and towering clouds dwarfing a steamship on a dark sea (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven).3 In fact, the work appears rather to be a contemporary variant of Tate D25327 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 205), a study related to The Bass Rock, a watercolour of about 1824 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight)4 showing the island in the Firth of Forth, which was engraved in 1826 for Walter Scott’s Provincial Antiquities of Scotland (see the Introduction to this section; Tate impressions: T04499–T04501, T06066).
While the finished design appears to rely particularly on 1822 drawings from the south as noted under D25327, Eric Shanes has stated that the version here is based on two of the many views in the 1818 Bass Rock and Edinburgh sketchbook (Tate D13326, D13330; Turner Bequest CLXV 3a, 5a),5 from a more south-easterly angle, although the correlations are not exact and the differences more perhaps on account of the looseness of the two colour studies than deliberate changes of viewpoint. Shanes has suggested that the marks below the middle of the rock may indicate ‘a foundering vessel’,6 perhaps prefiguring the prominent wreckage in the foreground of the finished design.
As Katrina Thomson has put it, Turner is also ‘playing with different effects of atmosphere and light’,7 most obviously in showing a yellow and red sunset sky to the left of the rock8 (with undiluted red test strokes at the top right), as opposed to the strong blues of the lightning-riven, stormy sky opted for in the end.
Finberg 1909, II, p.1184.
Gage 1974, p.46.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.198–9 p.347, pl.350 (colour).
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.426 no.1069, pl.173 (colour).
See Shanes 1997, p.57.
Thomson 1999, p.31.
Ibid., p.94; see also Shanes 1997, p.57.

Matthew Imms
July 2016

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