Joseph Mallord William Turner

The River Medway at Upnor Castle


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 112 × 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCIX 87 a

Catalogue entry

As identified by Finberg, the drawing composed across folio 88 recto (D17503), the present sheet, and folio 86 verso (D17499) describes a view of the River Medway at Castle Upnor inverted relative to the foliation of the sketchbook.1 On the present page, the prospect includes the Castle at far right, the waterway at centre, and a collection of vessels at left where the study transgresses the gutter and continues on the next sheet.
This drawing is widely agreed to have informed the composition for the watercolour Upnor Castle, Kent of around 1831 (Whitworth Art Gallery)2 engraved by J.B. Allen for the England and Wales series and published in 1833 (Tate impression: T06102).3 Turner frequently returned to much earlier studies in order to produce a painting, particularly so in the case of England and Wales.4 The present sketchbook is brimming with details of maritime architecture and rigging, and a drawing on folio 43 verso (D17438) is often cited as the basis for the man of war in the finished watercolour.5 A more detailed study of the Castle is composed on folio 23 verso (D17405).6 Craig Hartley suggests that with his painting of Upnor, Turner seems interested in a depiction of ‘contemporary activity’.7 Ann Sumner argues that it is a pessimistic commentary ‘upon the decline of military might’.8 The original title of the scene as described on the engraver’s proof was ‘Castle Upnor on the Medway with part of Chatham Dock-yard and Liner’.9 Chatham appears in a great number of drawings throughout the Medway sketchbook. A comprehensive list of these instances can be found in the entry for folio 22 recto (D17402).
Upnor Castle was built in 1559 following orders from Queen Elizabeth I.10 The Queen required a fortress that would supply defence for her warships anchored in the Medway and at Chatham Dockyard.11 The letterpress which accompanied Turner’s published engraving in 1833 referenced the Dutch raid of the Medway in June 1667.12 This was the only occasion upon which Upnor Castle saw military action, and was described by the diarist John Evelyn as ‘a Dreadful Spectacle as ever any English men saw, & a dishonour never to be wiped off’.13 Nonetheless, the counter-attack on the Dutch from Upnor forced Admiral Van Ghent eventually to retreat, preventing a devastating attack on Chatham and Rochester. By the time Turner came to depict the fortress, it was being used as a powder magazine.14

Maud Whatley
January 2016

Finberg 1909, I, p.609.
Wilton 1979, p.399 no.847, reproduced.
See ibid.
Nugent and Croal 1997, p.86 under no.52.
Hartley 1984, p.49 under no.39.
Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.122 under no.425
Hartley, p.49 under no.39.
Sumner 1989, p.50 under no.71.
‘Upnor Castle’, BBC, accessed 27 January 2016,
Nugent and Croal, p.86.
John Evelyn quoted ibid.

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