Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Sun above a Landscape at Dawn or Sunset

c.1820–40

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Medium
Chalk and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 220 × 254 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D25513
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 389

Catalogue entry

In interpreting Turner’s somewhat elusive composition, Gerald Wilkinson suggested ‘a mountain subject: he is recording an unusual straight line of stratus cloud, such as can be seen in still, rising air.’1 A small sun is reserved as blank paper within an area of glowing yellow towards the top right, and there seems to be the pale bluish silhouette of a hill or mountain to the left of centre. The dark, tapering horizontal above it does suggest an odd effect of cloud or smoke, but the blank paper above and below it appears rubbed by comparison and it is unclear whether the mark is adventitious, and there is a more pronounced counterpart on the corresponding area of the verso, suggesting a stain has permeated the sheet (see further technical notes below on the general state of the sheet); temporarily masking it does appear to render the slight composition more coherent.
For ‘colour beginnings’ focusing on a centrally placed sun, see the Introduction to this subsection. Compare also Tate D25514 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 390), a study of the sun low over St Michael’s Mount.
1
Wilkinson 1975, p.122.
Technical notes:
The sheet is rubbed and darkened across much of its surface, except for a tapering strip along the top, suggesting that the remainder was exposed to light or dust for a prolonged period, during which the dark horizontal mark discussed above may have appeared.
Despite the carefully rendered if inconspicuous sun, Eric Shanes has gone so far as to declare that this sheet and the technically unusual and incoherent Tate D25505 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 381) ‘bear no recognisable imagery whatsoever’ and ‘may be just undersheets, or the pieces of paper that artists frequently employ to support the pieces of paper they are actually working on and to prevent the board or table surface beneath them from getting wet’ which ‘would explain why these sheets are covered with randomly distributed smears of paint and rectangular outlines which may have accrued from the masking effect of other sheets placed on top of them.’1 The bands of yellow down the left-hand side and along the bottom appear to be of this nature.
1
Shanes 1997, p.30; see also p.100.

Matthew Imms
March 2016

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