In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 308 × 492 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 72

Catalogue entry

Eric Shanes has suggested that this colour study represents the harbour at Whitby, North Yorkshire, as an undeveloped subject for Turner’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.1 He has compared it with the watercolour Whitby of about 1827 (private collection),2 engraved (open etching only; no Tate impression) for the Picturesque Views on the East Coast of England, which shows St Mary’s Church and Whitby Abbey from an elevated viewpoint looking north-east, with a contre-jour dawn effect which would only be feasible from that angle in high summer; the same applies with the sun at the centre of the present composition, assuming the identification is correct. Shanes describes the present work as ‘possibly based on a synthesis’ of pencil sketches in the 1801 Helmsley sketchbook (Tate D02469–D02471; Turner Bequest LIII 6, 7, 8),3 dominated by the tower (now gone) of Whitby Abbey at the centre and the lower profile of St Mary’s to its left, looking north-east across the harbour from the waterline.
Finberg had suggested Tamworth as the subject, presumably thinking of the England and Wales composition Tamworth Castle, Staffordshire of about 1830 (private collection), 4 engraved in 1832 (Tate impression: T04598), but this study is sufficiently removed from it for a connection to be discounted; ‘colour beginnings’ which do appear to show Tamworth are Tate D25268 and D25306 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 146, 184).
The present work was exhibited in 19745 and 19806 as relating to one of Turner’s recurrent subjects, Norham Castle above the River Tweed in Northumberland (for a general discussion see under Tate D08158; Turner Bequest CXVIII D),7 culminating in the unfinished painting Norham Castle, Sunrise of about 1845 (Tate N01981),8 which has been linked to this study,9 but the general similarity appears fortuitous, while the dark forms and upright strokes below the sun and tower suggest shipping in a harbour, as in the Whitby sketches. However, David Hill has described Shanes’s Whitby identification as ‘positively wrong’,10 albeit without offering an alternative. For a likely Norham ‘colour beginning’ see Tate D40191 (verso of CCLXIII 22).
Shanes 1997, pp.68, 95, 96, 103, 104.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.405 no.903; Eric Shanes, Turner’s England 1810–38, London 1990, p.157 no.129, reproduced in colour.
Shanes 1997, p.68.
Wilton 1979, p.399 no.844, reproduced.
See Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.174.
See Michael Spender in Spender and Malcolm Fry, Turner at the Bankside Gallery: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Drawings & Water-colours of British River Scenes from the British Museum, exhibition catalogue, Bankside Gallery, London 1980, p.180.
See also ‘Retrospect: Norham Castle 1798–1840’ in Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, pp.172–4.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.301–2 no.512, pl.514 (colour).
See Butlin and Joll 1984, p.302; see also Smiles 2006, p.211 note 1:33.
Hill 1997, p.7.

Matthew Imms
March 2013

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