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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Moonlight at Sea (The Needles) c.1818

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Moonlight at Sea (The Needles) circa 1818
Vaughan Bequest CXVIII V
Watercolour on white wove lightweight writing paper, 209 x 276 mm
Watermark ‘J Whatman’
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Purchased from Henry Dawe by Charles Stokes by 1848, 15 guineas
Bequeathed by Stokes to Hannah Cooper, 1853
Exchanged 19 May 1854 via Thomas Griffith
Henry Vaughan by 1878, and possibly by 1862
(see main catalogue entry)
Turner’s design, engraved for the Liber Studiorum but not published, was based on an early painting, itself almost certainly the work exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1796 (305) as Fishermen at Sea (Tate T01585);1 on this assumption, it was his first exhibited oil. However, it may be that he did not consider the composition for inclusion in the series until listing it in about 1817–18 (see below); it would presumably have been intended for the ‘Marine’ category. As Gillian Forrester notes, the related plate has generally been attributed to Turner alone, but since the present drawing was owned by the Liber engraver Henry Dawe, he may possibly have had some direct involvement – the same may apply in the case of the unpublished Kingston Bank design (for drawing see Tate D08177; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII W).2
The oil had been purchased in 1796 and it is not known whether Turner saw it subsequently. Uniquely among the identifiable topographical subjects in the Liber, the print, usually held to represent the Needles (coastal chalk formations at the western tip of the Isle of Wight), is reversed in comparison with the drawing and the original painting; the stacks and arch are also freely rearranged, and Turner may have felt preserving their orientation – obscure as they are in the dark distance – was unnecessary in this case and treated the design as the starting point for a generic coastal scene. The various elements in the drawing are in roughly the same configuration as in the painting, but vary throughout in their details and precise juxtapositions; most notably, the nearer boat is now shown heading towards the coast rather than out to sea. Finberg noted that the artist Sir Francis Seymour Haden thought the rocks were at the entrance of Freshwater Bay, about four miles to the east of the Needles;3 one of Turner’s drawings in the 1795 Isle of Wight sketchbook shows rocks at the latter location (Tate D00447; Turner Bequest XXIV 39) including a prominent, leaning chalk stack, but the correlation is far from exact.
The composition is probably indicated, as ‘Moon’, in a list (now rubbed and difficult to decipher) of Liber works in progress around 1817–18 inside the back cover of the Aesacus and Hesperie sketchbook (Tate D40933; Turner Bequest CLXIX);4 although Forrester notes that this could also be a reference to Moonlight on the Medway, she considers the drawing for the latter (Tate D25451; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 328) to date from several years later.5
Two plates were prepared following this drawing, each reversing the composition. The first6 was engraved in mezzotint with some etching, generally attributed to Turner but perhaps also by Henry Dawe, who once owned the present drawing; Tate holds a pre-1925 photographic facsimile (Tate A01153) of the first of the two known proof states; the plate was reworked before the second, and both impressions are in the British Museum, London (1900–8–24–91 and 92 respectively). Forrester has suggested that ‘the experimental appearance of the second proof suggests Turner’s own work.’7 The second plate8 was a very heavily worked with etching and mezzotint engraving, and was perhaps ‘a later, or even earlier experiment of Turner’s,’9 which became ‘ruined’10 in the process. No proofs are recorded, and the plate was not offered in the 1873 Turner estate Liber sale;11 some impressions were later printed,12 of which Tate holds one (Tate A01154).
As with other engraved but unpublished Liber designs (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.72–91)13 such as Moonlight on the Medway (noted above; for others see Tate D08170–D08175, D08177, D08178; Turner Bequest CXVIII U, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII P, Q, R, S, T, W, X; and Tate N02782, N03631), Turner seems to have been moving away from his established mode of combining outline and tone on the plate, towards a purely tonal, chiaroscuro effect which anticipates the ‘Little Liber’ prints of the 1820s (see general Liber introduction).
In 1896, Frank Short etched and mezzotinted the composition14 as one of his interpretations of the unpublished Liber plates (Tate does not hold an impression; see general Liber introduction). He engraved it in the style of the published Liber prints, matching rather than reversing the orientation of the drawing, which he claimed to have followed ‘without reference to the experimental plate’.15 Although he faithfully followed the drawing’s sky, moon, rocks and boat, he appears to have copied the waves in the foreground from the first British Museum proof in place of the rough washes at that point in the drawing, to create a consistent level of detail throughout.
By 1848 the present work had been bought by Turner’s friend Charles Stokes for 15 guineas from its engraver Henry Dawe; Stokes bequeathed it to his niece Hannah Cooper in 1853, but ‘being doubtful [it] was parted with’ by exchange the following year through Turner’s dealer Thomas Griffith.16 Ruskin included a photograph of it among examples of the Liber prints in his 1870s selections for Oxford University17 (as he did with Isis: Tate D08168; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII N). This may have been a copy of the photograph mentioned by Rawlinson in 1878, when the watercolour was certainly owned by Henry Vaughan, as ‘published by Messrs. Hogarth’.18 If it was uniform with the Hogarth photographs of other Vaughan drawings, the Isis and the Temple of Jupiter (Tate D08173; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII S), the latter and possibly both dating from 1862, then Vaughan may have also owned the present drawing by that time.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.1–2 no.1, pl.1 (colour).
Forrester 1996, pp.150, 151 note 3.
Finberg 1924, reproduced p.341.
Forrester 1996, p.163.
Ibid., p.151 note 2.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163; 1906, p.189, proofs (a) and (b); Finberg 1924, p.341; Forrester 1996, pp.150–1, including proof no.85ii.
Forrester 1996, p.151.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163; 1906, pp.189–90; not recorded in Finberg 1924; Forrester 1996, pp.150–1.
Forrester 1996, p.151.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163; 1906, p.190.
Christie, Manson and Woods, London, 24–28 March 1873.
Forrester 1996, p.151 and note 6.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.144–69; 1906, pp.169–96; Finberg 1924, pp.287–365.
Hardie 1938, p.65 no.30, reproduced p.[103] pl.XII.
Short, quoted in ibid., p.65.
Forrester 1996, p.150; ‘Cooper Notebooks’, vol.II, p.6 no.5 in Krause 1997, p.267.
Catalogue of Examples (1870), no.31B, in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn eds., Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin: Volume XXI: The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogues, Notes, and Instructions, London 1906, p.65.
Rawlinson 1878, p.163.
Technical notes:
The sheet has been identified as once being part of the Studies for Liber sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CXV),1 other pages of which also bear the ‘J Whatman | 1807’ watermark; as it has been trimmed to the image as engraved (intact pages in the sketchbook being 230 x 381 mm), it is not possible to establish its original location in the book by matching it to the stubs that remain there. There are more washes and fewer brushstrokes than in most other Liber drawings; many were applied wet, with consequent hard edges. The boat has been outlined with a glossy, medium-rich wash over the others. The overall dark, warm brown results from the use of a burnt sienna pigment. Stopping- and scratching-out have been used for the lights.2 The moon was reserved, and after an initial wash a thin, freehand line was preserved as the horizon between the sea and sky, emphasised by a sparkling reflection scratched out on the same line, immediately below the moon; there is further scratching out on the sea below, and on waves to the right as they catch the moonbeams.
Forrester 1996, pp.15, 24 note 82 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8); see also Bower, Tate conservation files.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘V | 85’ centre
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVIII – V’ bottom left
The glossy, thick outlines of the boat and figures have bled through a little.

Matthew Imms
May 2006

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Moonlight at Sea (The Needles) c.1818 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 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-moonlight-at-sea-the-needles-r1131783, accessed 22 May 2019.