Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Leader Sea Piece


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 183 × 260 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVI X

Display caption

Between 1806 and 1819 Turner was working on a set of images for a publication known as the Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies). The series, based on Claude Lorrain’s famous Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), consisted of seventy-one prints in brown ink, after watercolours by Turner. Shown here are three of the watercolours, and one of the prints from the project.

Turner’s intention was to promote landscape art in its various manifestations and he devoted an entire category to ‘Marine Landscape’. Some of the seascapes were entirely new designs; others were based on existing compositions.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, untitled, published Charles Turner, 29 March 1809
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design, or rather the lettering of the prints derived from it, is the main evidence for the existence of a painting of the subject, dubbed ‘The Leader Sea Piece’, and dated to circa 1807–9 by Butlin and Joll.1 The Liber etching is lettered simply ‘Possession of Wm Leader Esqr’, whereas the completed engraving’s caption seems vaguer: ‘Original Sketch of a Picture for W. Leader Esqr.’ Although William Leader owned Turner’s painting Conway Castle, circa 1803 (private collection), 2 apparently having acquired it directly from the artist, there is no other record of a further commission beyond the presence of Leader’s name in Turner’s checklists of Liber subjects (see below); it has been tentatively suggested that Turner could have been ‘evolving his painting at the same time as he evolved his “reproduction”’.3
Rawlinson had ‘heard on good authority that this fine subject is taken, almost without alteration, from a picture by W. Vandervelde’.4 The composition can be compared, for example,5 to a painting in the National Gallery, London (NG977), thought to be a studio work after Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633–1707). Turner had painted Dutch Boats in a Gale (‘The Bridgewater Seapiece’), exhibited 1801 (private collection, on long-term loan to the National Gallery, London)6 as a pendant to another of the Dutchman’s works.
There is a variant watercolour at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (12.279), dated by Gillian Forrester to the same period as the Turner Bequest study, with a warship – silhouetted rather than highlighted – in the left distance, and a sailing boat in the right foreground, seen side-on;7 the latter is comparable to those in the Dutch Boats in a Gale (see above) and the later Wreck of a Transport Ship, exhibited 1810 (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon).8 The overall composition is close to another painting, Sheerness as Seen from the Nore, exhibited 1808 (private collection),9 an affinity acknowledged in the alternative title for the plate in the early Liber literature: ‘The Guard-Ship at the Nore’. As the early provenance of Sheerness has not been definitely established, Forrester notes that ‘it is tempting to suggest that the picture may have belonged to William Leader, and that the Liber plate is simply a variant of the finished painting.’10
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.126–7 no.205.
Ibid., pp.107–8 no.141, pl.146 (colour).
John Gage, ‘Turner and John Landseer: Translating the Image’, Turner Studies, vol.8, no.2, Winter 1988, p.8.
Rawlinson 1878, p.47.
Forrester 1996, p.69.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.12–13 no.14, pl.11 (colour).
Exhibited Turner’s Liber Studiorum, Containing Choice Impressions of the First States, Etchings, Touched Proofs, together with the Unpublished Plates, and a Few Original Drawings for the Work, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London 1872 (111); Rawlinson 1878, p.46; Forrester 1996, p.68 no.20 ii, reproduced, p.69.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.128–9 no.210, pl.213 (colour).
Ibid., p.58 no.76, pl.86 (colour).
Forrester 1996, p.69.
Ibid., p.69 note 3 no.20 iii, reproduced p.68.
Brooke 1885, p.70.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.46–7 no.20.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.40–9; 1906, pp.49–58; Finberg 1924, pp.65–84.
Martin Hardie, The Liber Studiorum Mezzotints of Sir Frank Short, R.A., P.R.E. after J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Catalogue & Introduction, London 1938, p.53 no.15.
Brooke 1885, bound opposite p.[69].
Forrester 1996, p.68 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

Forrester 1996, p.68.

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