Joseph Mallord William Turner

Trees beside the River, with Bridge in the Middle Distance


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 879 × 1206 mm
frame: 1193 × 1550 × 140 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This is an oil sketch or unfinished painting, its design brushed freely over a pale ground. It is one of a group of Thames landscapes which were probably painted in the open air during Turner’s boating expeditions along the river.

However, this composition is not just spontaneous but formal and controlled. Its symmetry is almost classical, and the arches in the background seem more like a Roman aqueduct than a modern Thames bridge. In his drawings, Turner often juxtaposed Thames scenery with ideal versions looking back to antiquity.

Gallery label, February 2010

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

169. [N02692] Trees beside the River, with Bridge in the Middle Distance c. 1806–7

Canvas, 34 5/8 × 47 1/2 (88 × 120·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (? one of 219–35); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. Paris 1983–4 (18, repr.).

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 26; Gage 1969, pp. 37, 240 n. 51, pl. 40.

The composition is derived from two drawings in the ‘Studies for Pictures; Isleworth’ sketchbook (XC-55 and 56), which, pace Finberg 1961, Gage 1969 and Wilkinson 1974, p. 106, must be dated c. 1804–5. The inside of the front cover bears a memorandum dated 1804 and the address ‘Sion Ferry House, Isleworth’, from which Turner addressed a letter to Colt Hoare on 23 November 1805 and for which Turner was already liable to rates on 23 May 1805 (Youngblood 1982, p. 34 n. 9). In addition the many composition sketches reflect Turner's neo-classical style in the few years after Turner returned from his studies in the Louvre in 1802, one of them (XC-29 verso, repr. in colour Wilkinson 1974, p. 108) being for the oil of Windsor Castle from the Thames which was signed at Isleworth (No. 149). The relationship seen by Gage to a watercolour in the ‘Thames, from Reading to Walton’ sketchbook (XCV-46, repr. in colour Wilkinson 1974, p. 77) is less close, but the composition is however very close, apart from the presence of the bridge, to a drawing apparently from nature in the ‘Wey, Guildford’ sketchbook of c. 1807 (XCVIII-10; repr. Wilkinson 1974, p. 85).

This painting has been carried further than the other large Thames sketches and is more thickly painted. Its Italianate ruined bridge, which links the preliminary drawings with the classical subjects in the same ‘Studies for Pictures’ sketchbook, suggests that Turner may have been working towards a subject-picture for exhibition.

[from] Nos. 160–76: Large Thames Sketches c. 1806–7

THIS group of seventeen sketches on canvas from the Turner bequest, though carried to different degree of finish, are all similar in technique, being lightly painted over a dry chalky ground, and are all roughly similar in size save for Sketch for ‘Harvest Dinner, Kingston Bank’, which measures only 24 × 36 in. (No. 160 [N02696]). This last was used for the painting exhibited at Turner's gallery in 1809 and again in 1810 (No. 90 [N00491]). Others are more loosely related to finished oil paintings exhibited in 1808, 1809 and 1810. A number of them are also related to drawings in the ‘Thames from Reading to Walton’ sketchbook, datable c. 1806 (XCV; pp. 22–3 are sketches for the pictures of Walton Bridges, paid for early in 1807, see Nos. 60 and 63); c.f. for example pp. 31 and 37 with No. 173 [N02699], and p. 35 with No. 172 [N02706]; there is a different view of Goring Church, the subject of No. 161 [N02704], on p. 19. The composition of one example, Trees beside a River, with a Bridge in the Middle Distance (No. 169 [N02692]), is very close to a drawing in the rather earlier ‘Studies for Pictures; Isleworth’ sketchbook, sandwiched between lists of classical and Biblical subjects (XC-55 verso and 56): for the evidence for dating this sketchbook c. 1804–5 see Nos. 149 [T03870] and 169 [N02692].

There is reason to suppose that, contrary to Turner's usual practice, some if not all of these sketches were at least begun out-of-doors. Thornbury prints some reminiscences of the son of Turner's ‘oldest friend the Rev. Mr. Trimmer’, who had been out fishing with Turner when a child. ‘He had a boat at Richmond ... From his boat he painted on a large canvas direct from Nature. Till you have seen these sketches, you know nothing of Turner's powers. There are about two score of these large subjects, rolled up, and now national property ... There is a red sunset (simply the sky) among the rolls’. The last, probably the sadly darkened Sunset (No. 525 [N01876]), is different in character from the works under discussion and is probably later, but the folded and battered condition of many of the Thames sketches such as Nos. 171[N02703] and 173 [N02699] supports the identification with the works mentioned by Trimmer, as does the fact that the sketches seem to have been unstretched when they came to be relined early this century; indeed, some if not all may never have been stretched, No. 167 [N02705] for instance showing none of the usual pulling at the edges from the nails attaching a canvas to a stretcher. As in the case of two later groups of sketches on canvas, those painted in the Isle of Wight in 1827 (Nos. 260–268 [N01995-N02001]) and those done in Rome 1828–9 (Nos. 302–317), Turner may have painted on rolls of canvas, working them over a frame to use different areas as required. If these sketches were always on loose canvases they may have been the ‘Roll of 17 separate Canvasses’, nos. 219 to 235 in the inventory of the Turner Bequest. All but one were first numbered, restored and put on public exhibition in 1910; No. 165 [N05519], which is in considerably worse condition, was not even numbered until 1944.

Though Turner did not complete his own cottage at Twickenham, across the river from Richmond, until 1813, he already had a second home at Isleworth, not that much further from Richmond, by 23 May 1805 (see Youngblood op. cit., p. 34 n. 9), and at Upper Mall, Hammersmith probably from late 1806 until 1811, and he could well have had a boat at Richmond during all this period. John Gage suggested in 1969 that this group of sketches was executed over a number of years from about 1807 to as late as Crossing the Brook, exhibited in 1815 (No. 130 [N00497]); however in 1983 he accepted our dating for two of the sketches made on the Thames above London although dating one of the Thames estuary sketches (No. 176, q.v [N02698].) to c. 1809. It is difficult to be sure of Turner's methods but the evidence of the sketchbooks and also of the groups of oil sketches that he is known to have painted on rolls of canvas, at Cowes in 1827 (Nos. 260–8 [N01995-N02001]) and in and around Rome in 1828 (Nos. 302–17) suggest that he was more likely to execute a whole run of sketches, varying in execution and degree of finish to a considerable extent, in a short time than to spread such series over periods of years. It seems likely therefore that Turner only used this rather unusual size and technique for this sort of sketch as a limited experiment.

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 169; 1877, pp. 120–21; MacColl 1920, pp. 38–40; Herrmann 1963, p. 12; Kitson 1964, pp. 77–8; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 24–6; Gage 1969, pp. 37–8; Reynolds 1969, p. 71; Ziff 1971, p. 125; Herrmann 1975, pp. 229; Ziff 1980, p. 169; Youngblood, 1982, pp. 21, 34 nn. 9 and 23; Gage in exh. cat., Paris 1983–4, pp. 77–9.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

You might like

In the shop