Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Mouth of the River Humber


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 162 × 242 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII R

Catalogue entry

This view encompasses Spurn Head at the right and Grimsby in the distance on the left where a parade of vessels can be seen anchored in the river. Grimsby is framed compositionally by a vortical shape formed by the space created between the arc of storm clouds above and the curving swell of the waves below. Turner has applied swift strokes of gouache to accentuate the turbulent swell of the Humber.
Eric Shanes writes that ‘As was common in most of his marine vistas, Turner eschewed the even distribution of his shipping across a wide arena and instead jumbled it all up together, reveling in the variety of abstract forms that such a juxtaposition creates’.1 The same effect is found in the shipping in The Medway watercolour for the Rivers series (Tate D18149; Turner Bequest CCVIII P). In the foreground sailors in a Billy-boy (a form of river barge and coasting vessel) battle against a squall, orientating the rigging to control the force and velocity of the wind through the sails. Behind it is a brig tacking in the opposite direction, and last, in the middle distance, a man-of-war at anchor. Shanes notes that ‘the design in unified by a subtle arabesque line which runs around and down the emerging line of light in the distance on the left, along the Billy-boy’s gunwale, and up the edge of its mainsail back into the sky and beyond’.2 The tempestuous and dynamic view is aptly described by Barbara Hofland, who writes that the Humber here ‘partakes the character which generally belongs to that mighty congregation of water when pent between banks and fretted by obstacles’.3
Finberg suggests that a colour study for this drawing may be found in Turner’s Ports of England sketchbook of about 1822–3 (Tate D17739; Turner Bequest CCII 20).4 He also lists four pencil sketches on loose sheets as being possible studies for the shipping in this watercolour (Tate D17762–D17765; Turner Bequest CCIII E–F).5
This drawing was engraved in mezzotint by George Henry Phillips and published in September 1826 (Tate impressions T04813 and T04814).
Shanes 1990, p.112, no.87 (colour).
Hofland 1827, p.6, pl.3.
Finberg 1909, vol.2, p.615, no.20.
Ibid, pp.616–7.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

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