J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner A Hulk or Hulks on the River Tamar: Twilight c.1811-14

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
A Hulk or Hulks on the River Tamar: Twilight c.1811–14
Turner Bequest CXCVI E
Gouache and watercolour on white wove paper, 262 x 330 mm
Stamped in black ‘CXCVI – E’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The ‘muted colours and bold shapes’1 here combine in a ‘record of a powerful motif’,2 which has been exhibited and published under close variations of Finberg’s title ‘Hulks on Tamar: Twilight’.3 With the characteristic curving mass of the decommissioned warship’s hull (or possibly more than one overlapping) largely an unmodulated brown against the grey silhouette of the wooded bank beyond, perhaps Finberg was thinking of an anecdote from the Devon journalist Cyrus Redding (1785–1870), who was one of Turner’s close companions during his extended stay in the Plymouth area in the summer of 1813 (see the introduction to the ‘West Country 1813’ section of this catalogue). As Redding later vividly put it:
I remember one evening on the Tamar, the sun had set, and the shadows become very deep. [The artist James] Demaria looking at a seventy-four lying under Saltash, said:
‘You were right, Mr. Turner, the ports cannot be seen. The ship is one dark mass.’
‘I told you so,’ said Turner, ‘now you see it – all is one mass of shade.’
‘Yes, I see that is the truth, and yet the ports are there.’
‘We can take only what we see, no matter what is there. There are people in the ship – we don’t see them through the planks.’
‘True,’ replied Demaria.
There had been a discussion on the subject before between the two professional men, in which Turner had rightly observed, that after sunset, under the hills, the port-holes were undiscernible. We had now ocular proof of it.4
A later variation has ‘the sun just setting, and the shadows becoming dark and deep’, allowing the demonstration of Turner’s prediction that ‘we should only see the hulls – a mass of shadow.’5
In 1812, the year after his first general West Country tour in search of material for the Southern Coast scheme (see the Introduction to this section), The River Plym6 was among several oil paintings shown at Turner’s gallery. Untraced ever since, it was possibly the scene now known as Hulks on the Tamar, with several vessels dark against a bright sky (Tate T03881; displayed at Petworth House, West Sussex);7 there are a few relevant drawings in the 1811 Devonshire Coast, No.1 sketchbook (for example Tate D08717; Turner Bequest CXXIII 192). The present study is, perhaps fortuitously, comparable with one off Saltash a few pages on (Tate D08721; Turner Bequest CXXIII 195).
Andrew Wilton has compared the setting with a similar view in the 1814 Devon Rivers, No.2 sketchbook (Tate D09702; Turner Bequest CXXXIII 28a).8 The waters around Plymouth were full of such vessels towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, as recorded in a long sequence of pencil drawings in that book, used on Turner’s third summer visit to the area (Tate D09671–D09703; Turner Bequest CXXXIII 3–29);9 it was formerly associated with the 1813 stay, hence presumably the long-standing dating of the present work to about that year, extended a little here in line with all three West Country tours, although as a studio production it could easily have been made later. Andrew Wilton has suggested an immediate link to the Southern Coast series,10 while the concurrent Rivers of Devon project is another possibility (see the Introduction to this section). Wilton has also compared the evocative use of light and atmosphere to the effects in compositions associated with the ‘Little Liber’ (see the ‘Little Liber c.1823–6’ section).11
Perkins 1990, p.26.
Brown 2007, p.13.
Finberg 1909, I, p.599.
Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, Literary and Personal, with Observations on Men and Things, London 1858, vol.I, pp.204–5; quoted in full in Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by his Friends and Fellow-Academicians, London 1862, vol.I, pp.206–7, and again in Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by his Friends and Fellow-Academicians: A New Edition, Revised with 8 Coloured Illustrations after Turner’s Originals and 2 Woodcuts, London 1897, pp.145–6.
Cyrus Redding, Past Celebrities Whom I Have Known, London 1866, vol.I, pp.55–6.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.84 no.118.
Ibid., pp.84–5 no.119, pl.126; see also Perkins 1990, p.26.
See Wilton 1983, p.200.
Technical notes:
The thin sliver of the new moon was carefully reserved when the pale wash of the surrounding sky was applied; the corresponding glitter of the reflection in the foreground was heavily scratched out. The torn edges of the sheet are somewhat irregular, and there are colour tests along the top edge.
Blank; extensive brown staining; inscribed by ?John Ruskin in pencil ‘AB 79 P | O’ towards bottom right; inscribed in pencil ‘Box’ 97’ and stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CXCVI – E’ bottom right.

Matthew Imms
July 2016

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘A Hulk or Hulks on the River Tamar: Twilight c.1811–14 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, July 2016, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, February 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-hulk-or-hulks-on-the-river-tamar-twilight-r1184402, accessed 25 June 2024.