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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Key to 'The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory' 1806

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Key to ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory’ 1806
Turner Bequest CXXI K
Pen and ink and watercolour on white wove paper, 186 x 234 mm
Inscribed by Turner in ink with numbers ‘1’–‘20’ within image and again below and above it with names of figures &c (see main catalogue text)
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This sheet was kept, as Finberg described, in another ‘endorsed by Mr. [John] Ruskin – “Trafalgar. (Original key-sketch for the Exhibition?.) Out of Rubbish heap at bottom of Box H. J.R., 1878”’. Ruskin guessed that it was intended for visitors to Turner’s Gallery in 1806, as a key to his picture Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (Tate, N00480) then exhibited there.1 It numbers and names the principal characters in the picture, who are also roughly sketched in colour. Finberg stated that there was a description of the whole subject of the picture on the reverse. If so key and description must have been mounted on both sides of another sheet or mount, or have formed halves of the same sheet folded, as the description is now mounted beneath the key (as Tate D08267).
The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) resulted in a British victory over the combined fleets of France and Spain but also in the death of Lord Nelson. At a critical point in the battle, walking the quarterdeck of his flagship Victory, he was struck by a shot from a French marksman in the mizzen top of the French ship Redoutable which was positioned to starboard. Turner’s picture shows the moment Nelson fell, the officers and men who rushed to support him, and other incidents including the wounded Lieutenant Pasco, Nelson’s flag-lieutenant, being carried from the poop deck by the port gangway in the context of the surrounding narrative of the battle. The composition, content and details were developed from sketches and notes made off Sheerness when the Victory returned; see the Nelson sketchbook (Tate D05446–D05490; D40701–D40705; D41427; Turner Bequest LXXXIX) and larger views of the ship’s deck looking to the bow and stern (Tate D08243; Turner Bequest CXX c, D08275; Turner Bequest CXXI S).
Both key and description were badly damaged and left largely illegible by the Thames flood which struck Turner Bequest works on paper in the stores of the Tate Gallery in 1928. Perhaps as a result, they were not mentioned in Butlin and Joll’s catalogue entry for the 1806 picture. However, most of the image and inscriptions were revealed by ultra-violet scanning prior to the 1989 Tate exhibition, permitting the readings first published by Upstone and repeated here (with slight changes). Even allowing for damage, the sketch and texts seem hasty and improvised. Possibly they were only drafts or work in progress; the picture itself may have been unfinished when shown in 1806 and was reworked in 1808.2 Another possibility might be that Turner was planning an engraved key, to be published if the picture was more enthusiastically received than it actually was.
The purpose of the key is to identify important figures in the picture and explain the signal flag(s) in its foreground. It does not include the other ships around the Victory as these are named in the accompanying description. The names are especially valuable because, apart from unmistakable figures correctly placed – Nelson, Pasco, the French marksmen – Turner’s dispositions are imaginary reconstructions; and also because his painted figures lack individual likenesses even though he certainly met some of the subjects. While the Nelson sketchbook attests to this and describes some of their salient features, it is mainly devoted to the Victory and other ships and to events in the battle. Turner’s skills did not lie in portraiture and his approach differed from that of, for example, Benjamin West while preparing his own Death of Lord Nelson also for exhibition in 1806 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).3 If West visited the Victory the evidence has not survived, but he did receive a number of Trafalgar veterans from the ship, including Captain Adair’s servant Charles Chappel, at his London studio where he took their portraits; they came up from Chatham and were given their expenses.4 West’s picture, the most interesting parallel to Turner’s, was shown at his studio in summer 1806. It was given its own key when engraved by James Heath in 1811. Both West and Turner showed flags laid out on the Victory’s deck, in the former case French and Spanish ones to signify defeat of the opposing fleets. Turner’s picture has been commonly assumed to show just a French flag on the Victory’s poop deck, its role again being largely symbolic. However it is clearly part of the compound signal, made up of several flags, which is also sketched to right of the figures; both are numbered ‘20’. Upstone read the key as meaning ‘signal for close [of] action’. Although his flags are not strictly correct, Turner may instead have meant to show the Nelson’s last signal at Trafalgar, ‘Engage the enemy more closely’, which flew throughout the battle.
The full text of the key is given below, the names as written by Turner set alongside his numbers. Names have been checked against the Victory muster roll5 and possible or alternative identities are given from it in cases of doubt. Dates of birth and death where known and locations in the picture are noted.
1 ‘Marshall’ [John Marshall, Able Seaman or William Marshall, Ordinary Seaman. Poop deck, kneeling to left of the flag in left foreground]
2 ‘Lt Peake RM’ [James Godwin Peake (1779–1809), First Lieutenant Royal Marines, assumed command of the Victory marines when Captain Adair was killed; a pall-bearer at Nelson’s funeral. Standing on the gangway behind the flag]
3 ‘Marshall Signals Man’ [see 1 above, or another John, Able Seaman. Poop deck, holding flag rope]
4 ‘Lt Pascoe RN wounded’ [John Pasco (1774–1853), Signal Lieutenant. Wounded on port gangway]
5 ‘Robinson Midshipman’ [?Thomas Lowton Robins (1787–1852), Midshipman promoted to Master’s Mate, or James Robertson (also known as Walker) (1783–1858), Midshipman. Quarterdeck to right of port gangway, loading a gun]
6 illegible [to right of 5, also loading the gun]
7 ‘Lancaster Midshipman’ [Henry Lancaster (1791–1862), Boy first class; promoted Midshipman 1806. Poop deck, kneeling behind the flag]
8 ‘Rivers Midshipman’ [William Rivers (1788–1856), Midshipman. Location not marked or illegible]
9 ‘Master’s Assistant’ [probably Thomas Goble (1782–1869), Master’s Mate and Secretary to Captain Hardy. Quarterdeck, with Hardy behind Nelson]
10 ‘Capt Hardy’ [Thomas Masterman Hardy (1769–1839), Captain. Quarterdeck, bending over Nelson]
11 ‘Lt Rotly RM’ [Lewis Roatley/Rotely (1785–1861. Second Lieutenant Royal Marines. Quarterdeck, standing behind Hardy]
12 ‘Atkinson Master’ [Thomas Atkinson (1768–1836), Master. Quarterdeck, behind Nelson, to right of Hardy and in front of Roatley/Rotely]
13 ‘Lt King’ [Andrew King (1778–1835), Lieutenant. Quarterdeck, bending over Nelson, between Hardy and Atkinson]
14 illegible
15 ‘Lord Nelson’ [Horatio, Lord Nelson (1758–1805), Admiral. Quarterdeck]
16 ‘Lt Brown’ [George Brown/Browne (1784–1856), Lieutenant. In hatch, on steps to upper gun deck]
17 ‘Lt Williams’ [Edward Williams (died 1843), Lieutenant. Quarterdeck, bending over to starboard of main mast]
18 ‘Lt Reeves R Marines’ [Lewis Buckle Reeves (1786–1861), Second Lieutenant Royal Marines. Poop deck, starboard side, standing right foreground]
19 illegible* [a Royal Marine, poop deck, seated, presumably wounded, to left of Reeves]
20 ‘Signal for close action’ [the flag(s), poop deck, left foreground]
* Upstone read this name as ‘Viscount M [rest illegible]’. This cannot be confirmed. No Royal Marine with such a title is listed in the muster roll and the only possible candidate – if Turner was confused over some of his information – would be George Augustus Westphal (1785–1875), descended from German Counts Westphal, who was indeed wounded but was a Midshipman.

David Blayney Brown
April 2006

Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London1984, pp.46–7 no.58 (pl.68)
For Joseph Farington’s comment that it was ‘a very crude, unfinished performance’ see Butlin and Joll 1984, p.46
Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London 1986, pp.220–2 no.108
As described by West to Watkins French, 17 February 1806; in von Erffa and Staley 1986, p.220 note 1
John D. Clarke, The Men of HMS Victory at Trafalgar including The Muster Roll, Casualties, Rewards and Medals, Uckfield 1999, pp.27–50

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Key to ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory’ 1806 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, April 2006, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-key-to-the-battle-of-trafalgar-as-seen-from-the-mizen-r1139293, accessed 21 May 2024.