Joseph Mallord William Turner

The ‘Victory’ Coming up the Channel with the Body of Nelson


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 200 × 285 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Turner Bequest CXVIII c

Catalogue entry

?Lady Ashburton by 1878
Henry Vaughan after 1878
(see main catalogue entry)
Turner’s composition, traditionally assumed to be an unexecuted design for the Liber Studiorum, is closely based on his oil painting The Victory Returning from Trafalgar (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven)1 possibly exhibited at his gallery in 1806 along with The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (Tate N00480) to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson’s simultaneous triumph and death in the battle against the combined French and Spanish fleets on 21 October 1805. The Victory Returning was bought by Walter Fawkes, possibly in 1806. There are differences in the sails of the boats in the foreground, but the most noticeable change is that the ship seen on the left of the painting from the port side, in grey silhouette with the wind against her, has been replaced by one following the central vessel towards the viewer – and comparable to the nearest in the Liber design known as Ships in a Breeze (see Tate D08114; Turner Bequest CXVI M).
In an established tradition of ships’ portraits,2 all three ships are one, and are generally thought to represent Nelson’s flagship, as indicated by the painting’s traditional title – The Victory Returning from Trafalgar, in Three Positions – although not particularly accurately in terms of her basic configuration, nor showing the battle damage she had suffered. In both the painting and the drawing, she is apparently shown south-west of the Isle of Wight, off the Needles, with the central ship of the three shown effectively sailing in the wrong direction, heading south. In fact, she had put into Spithead (off Portsmouth to the north-east of the island) for repairs to her masts in December 1805 before continuing up the Channel and on to Sheerness, where Turner drew her on or soon after her arrival in the Shipwreck (1) and Nelson sketchbooks (Tate; Turner Bequest LXXXVII, LXXXIX). Accounts differ, but it seems that at least two of the masts had been severely damaged.3 Given Turner’s careful research on board for his painting of the battle, these discrepancies from what might have been expected in a ‘documentary’ account of the Victory’s return (including the failure to show flags at half-mast) have led Eric Shanes to suggest that the painting may have pre-dated Trafalgar and may not even have originally been intended as a specific representation of the Victory.4
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.46–7 no.59, pl.69 (colour).
Shanes 1986, pp.68, 70.
Ibid., p.68.
Ibid., pp.68, 70.
Peiter van der Merwe in Margarette Lincoln ed., Colin White, N.A.M. Rodger and others, Nelson & Napoléon, exhibition catalogue, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London 2005, p.247.
Forrester 1996, p.16.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.368 no.592, reproduced.
Hardie 1938, pp.75–7 no.45, reproduced p.[125] pl.XXIII.
Ibid., p.77 no.46.
Quoted ibid., p.76.
Rawlinson 1878, p.177.
Hon. Vicary Gibbs ed., The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom: Extant, Extinct or Dormant by G.E.C.: New Edition, Revised and Much Enlarged, Vol.I, London 1910, p.278.
Ibid., p.277.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Forrester 1996, pp.16, 25 note 86 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8); see also Bower, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
May 2006

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