Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Confluence of the Thames and the Medway

exhibited 1808

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 910 × 1220 mm
frame: 1258 × 1752 × 150 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1984. In situ at Petworth House

Technique and condition

The exact date of the painting is unknown but records show that the Earl of Egremont bought the painting in 1808, most likely direct from Turner’s studio. It was executed on a single piece of linen canvas with a simple 1 x1 open weave pattern. Visual examination and cross section analysis can not confirm the presence of a lining. If there is priming, it is extremely thin, not white, and does not cover the support completely. The canvas is visible in many areas where the paint layers do not cover the canvas fibres. There are also many pinpoint holes where the interstices in the linen have not been bridged by the fluid paint. These appear as tiny dark spots in the lighter coloured areas. The linen was stretched over an eight member softwood stretcher with corner braces and attached with ferrous tacks around the outside edge. The stretcher is expandable with double keyed, non-mitred, mortise and tenon joints. Evidence suggests this is an original stretcher and therefore the first extent Turner stretcher with corner braces, previously stretchers of this type were only known from cracks in the painting. Gummed paper tape was applied to the tacking margins and extends onto the reverse.

No evidence exists of initial preparation or underdrawing. The basic composition was blocked with paint onto the front face of the prepared canvas. At this point, the painting was removed from the stretcher, the tacking margins were flattened and it was lined onto an open weave fabric, probably by the artist or his father. This expanded the size of the painting by approximately 30mm in all directions. The lined canvas was then stretched onto the present stretcher and the painting completed.

Oil paint was applied in several layers and varies in thickness and opacity. The sky was executed in thin, smooth applications of colour that have little texture and do not obscure the canvas texture or cover areas of exposed canvas completely. Conversely, the waves were built up using thicker paint resulting in an abundance of brushstrokes and impasto. Most of the surface appears glossy. After completion, the painting was varnished with an even application of natural resin varnish which saturates the paint and evens out gloss.

Since its purchase, the painting has been displayed in the State Rooms at Petworth House. The painting is stable and in good condition overall. The lining undoubtedly contributed to the present state of preservation, including the absence of stretcher bar cracks. Canvas tension is slack causing a bulge along the bottom, slight undulations across the surface and corner draws at upper right. The painting exhibits a very fine network of general age cracks. There are several areas in the sky where the edges of the cracks are starting to lift that should be monitored as they are vulnerable and may lead to future loss. The natural resin varnish has yellowed and darkened slightly but it maintains an even gloss and still saturates the paint. Front and back are covered with a moderate layer of dust.

The painting was treated in the Tate Conservation Studio in January 2002.

Julie Simek
January 2002

Catalogue entry

75. [T03874] The Confluence of the Thames and the Medway Exh. 1808

Canvas, 35 × 47 (89 × 119·4)
Signed ‘J M W Turner RA fe’ lower right

Coll. Bought by the Earl of Egremont probably from Turner's gallery in 1808; by descent to the third Lord Leconfield who in 1947 conveyed Petworth to the National Trust; in 1957 the contents of the State Rooms were accepted by the Treasury in part payment of death duties.

Exh. Turner's gallery 1808; Tate Gallery 1951 (17 as ‘Sheerness’).

Lit. Petworth Inventories 1837, 1856 (London House); Collins Baker 1920, p. 126 no. 665; Clare 1951, p. 41; Finberg 1961, pp. 145–6, 149, 469 no. 120; Joll 1977, p. 375.

Although described as ‘Sheerness’ as early as 1837, this seems to be another example of Turner's pictures soon losing the titles under which they were originally exhibited. Further confusion has arisen because The Function of the Thames and the Medway (No. 62) has virtually the same title and is of much the same date. However, the description of the picture (exhibited in 1808 under the above title) given by John Landseer (?) in Review of Publications of Art, pp. 163–4, fits this picture exactly and there can no longer be any reasonable doubt that the identification is correct.

Landseer devotes some space to a general description of the three Thames seapieces exhibited, as noted in the entry for No. 74. Writing specifically about this picture, he praises the ‘considerable technical knowledge of marine affairs’ displayed in the painting of the ships and their rigging. ‘This Knowledge is always traceable in Mr. Turner's pictures, and we wish we could more frequently say the same of his care’. He goes on to describe it as being ‘altogether much more carefully painted than Sheerness from the Nore [No. 76] ... and its prevailing freshness, and cool and silvery tone, form an agreeable contrast with the rich, golden-toned View in the Forest of Bere (No. 77, [T03875]) which hangs alongside’. It is interesting that Landseer comments upon the picture's freshness as it is certainly painted in a higher key than other seapieces of this date and is unusual in having patches of green pigment, of quite a light tone, among the waves.

A watercolour on p. 41 in the ‘Hesperides (1)’ sketchbook (XCIII) shows a hoy crossing and partly masking a man of war in the same way as shown in this picture although the watercolour contains additional boats that do not appear in the oil. A drawing of fishing boats on p. 32 of the ‘River and Margate’ sketchbook (XCIX) may also possibly be connected.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

You might like

In the shop