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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner A Tower or Spire in a Landscape ('Aurora Borealis') c.1825-38

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
A Tower or Spire in a Landscape (‘Aurora Borealis’) c.1825–38
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 158
Watercolour, gouache and pencil on white wove paper, 310 x 488 mm
Inscribed by Turner in pencil ‘Aurora Borealis’ towards bottom right
Inscribed in red ink ‘158’ bottom right
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom centre
Stamped in black ‘CCLXIII – 158’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The subject of this colour study is currently unidentified, but the focus appears to be a distant tower or spire, apparently lit up against a night sky. However, there seems to be no visual indication of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, noted in Turner’s inscription; these spectacular light effects in the upper atmosphere at high latitudes are normally only visible to Britain observers in Scotland.
Andrew Wilton has noted a possible compositional link between this colour study and Tate D25227 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 105),1 a view of a spire beyond water and trees. Eric Shanes has suggested the present design may be a colour study of a lighthouse, relating to the series of Turner’s watercolours engraved as Picturesque View in England and Wales (published 1827–38).2 Turner began delivering the finished watercolours early in 1825, hence the broad range date given here to the present sheet. More specifically, Shanes proposes it as a variant of the 1819 watercolour of the Bell Rock Lighthouse (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh),3 in the North Sea off Angus in Scotland, although the crashing white waves of that design contrast with the obscure, dark forms here, suggesting foliage, trees and nocturnal clouds or perhaps smoke.
See also the introductions to the present subsection of unidentified subjects and the overall England and Wales ‘colour beginnings’ grouping to which it has been assigned.
Wilton 1975, p.74.
Shanes 1997, p.96.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.357 no.502.
Technical notes:
There are black and red colour tests at the top right.
Blank; inscribed in pencil ‘AB 150 P | O’ top left, upside down; inscribed in pencil ‘158 | CCLXIII’ bottom right; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram above ‘CCLXIII – 158’ bottom right.
The ‘AB’ number corresponds with the endorsement on one of the parcels of works sorted by John Ruskin during his survey of the Turner Bequest, in this case classified by him as ‘Colour dashes on white. Valueless’.1

Matthew Imms
March 2013

Transcribed in Finberg 1909, II, p.814.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘A Tower or Spire in a Landscape (‘Aurora Borealis’) c.1825–38 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-tower-or-spire-in-a-landscape-aurora-borealis-r1144359, accessed 27 May 2024.