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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex c.1808

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex circa 1808
Turner Bequest CXVII K
Pencil and watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 184 x 272 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and William Say, ‘Martello Towers, near Bexhill, Sussex’, published Turner, [?1] June 1811
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design shows the East Sussex coast at Galley Hill,1 just east of Bexhill, looking towards Pevensey Bay in the distance; William of Normandy had landed nearby prior to the Battle of Hastings and the last successful invasion of England in 1066. The South and East Coasts were now fortified by round Martello towers with look-out positions and gun emplacements, built between 1805 and 1812 against the imminent threat of Napoleon’s forces.2 Stopford Brooke considered the patriotic significance of the design: ‘It is in [the] guardianship of England that the sentiment of the subject lies, and the central tower, all in light, fixes our feeling on this thought. But the storm above defends England also, nor is the great chalk cliff without its aspect of defiance.’3 He also described the way in which Turner concentrated attention on the subject, as the ‘two swift-riding men enliven the road, and serve to insist on the dip of the ground, and to lengthen out the road to the eye. Lastly, the group of boy, woman, and child dimly repeat, and certainly lift into the air the centre of the composition, the Martello Tower and its companion.’4
As Gillian Forrester has demonstrated, the Napoleonic Wars and the military and domestic British response are alluded to in various Liber compositions, 5 including Winchelsea, Sussex, with its modern soldiers and medieval defences (for drawing see Tate D08145; Turner Bequest CXVII Q), and Crowhurst. In the latter, probably dating from after the end of the wars in 1815, the distant view of the coast – the same stretch as depicted in the present drawing – is obscured, but Turner’s original sketch and a related watercolour show a closely-spaced row of Martello towers (see catalogue entry for Tate D08172; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII R).
A slight pencil and chalk sketch of the Sussex coast in the Hurstmonceux and Pevensey sketchbook of about the mid 1800s (Tate D05628; Turner Bequest XCI 11) has been suggested as a possible source,6 although the towers do not appear – unless one is under construction in the middle distance. A substantial canvas, completely reworked in about 1830 and now depicting Figures in a Building (Tate N05496)7 originally showed the same Martello towers and landscape as the Liber composition (though without figures), as a very clear x-radiograph image has revealed.8 The status of the canvas, apparently dating from about the same time as the Liber drawing, is unclear;9 as Forrester notes, no other large-scale studies purely for the purpose of developing an image for the Liber are known, and Turner may have contemplated a finished, exhibitable painting ‘in a burst of patriotic fervour’.10
Perhaps there was a comparable cross-fertilisation as appears to have occurred in the case of another Liber composition with patriotic associations, London from Greenwich (for drawing, see Tate D08131; Turner Bequest CXVII D), and the related oil London from Greenwich Park (Tate N00483),11 painted on the same scale as the abandoned Bexhill canvas. Nevertheless, Finberg considered the present drawing ‘a very tame affair, and the finished plate is only saved from comparative failure by the fine sky. Yet it is worth comparing the two ... All the objects are forced [in the print] into shapes that act more powerfully on the imagination, everywhere the tendency of the line is towards emphasis and distinctness.’12
The composition is recorded, as ‘6[:] 3 Martello Towers’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12157; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)13 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.14 It also appears later in the sketchbook, as ‘3 Martello Towers’, in a list of ‘Marine’ subjects (Tate D12164; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 27a).15
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by William Say, bears the publication date June 1811 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Martello Towers, near Bexhill, Sussex’ in part 7 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.32–36;16 see also Tate D08136, D08137, D08139; Turner Bequest CXVII I, J, Vaughan Bequest CXVII L). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00978) and the published engraving (A00979). It is one of nine published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Marine’ category (see also Tate D08104, D08105, D08114, D08125, D08129, D08133; Turner Bequest CXVI C, D, M, X, CXVII B, F).
In 1817 a vignette-style line engraving of the composition was engraved by W.B. Cooke17 as part of his series Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (Tate impressions: T04392, T05280–T05282, T05976). Andrew Wilton has inferred that Turner would have prepared a new watercolour for the purpose,18 but the lettering of the prints – ‘From Turner’s Liber Studiorum’ in the first state, ‘by permission of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. from his Work of Liber Studiorum’ in the second – imply that the composition was adapted directly from the Liber print.19 Although Rawlinson described it as ‘an exact copy’,20 the foreground is extended, the clouds are in different positions and the sky is clearer; he noted that an otherwise undocumented ‘sketch for it in sepia, by Turner, is in the possession of Mr. Palser.’21
Eric Shanes, Turner’s Rivers, Harbours and Coasts, London 1981, p.45.
English Heritage data, accessed 26 May 2006, http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/mpp/mcd/mart.htm; see also The South Coast Martello Towers, accessed 26 May 2006, http://www.martello-towers.co.uk; and Townsend and Warrell 1991, pp.56–7.
Brooke 1885, p.111.
Ibid., p.112; see also Shanes 1990, p.113.
Forrester 1996, p.93.
Townsend and Warrell 1991, pp.56, 57 note 16, as ‘XCVI f.11’.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.281 no.446, pl.447.
Townsend and Warrell 1991, p.54 fig.2; see also Forrester 1996, p.93, no.34iii, reproduced.
See Townsend and Warrell 1991, pp.56–7.
Forrester 1996, p.94.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.69–70 no.97, pl.104 (colour).
Finberg 1910, pp.80–1.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.69–76; 1906, pp.80–9; Finberg 1924, pp.125–44.
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908, p.55 no.103.
Wilton 1979, p.352 no.460.
See Shanes 1981, p.45.
Rawlinson 1908, p.55.
Technical notes:
The figures were drawn in pencil, then detailed with fine brushstrokes. Pencil was also used to indicate the cliff, which was reserved with the darker washes of the sky applied up to it, and shading was added later to the cliff itself. The overall very warm brown colour results from the presence of a single Indian red pigment. The brightest clouds and principal tower were also reserved.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slides of details.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex c.1808 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, 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-martello-towers-near-bexhill-sussex-r1131741, accessed 20 July 2024.