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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Portsmouth c.1824-5

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Portsmouth c.1824–5
Turner Bequest CCVIII S
Watercolour on white wove watercolour paper, 160 x 240 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom left
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Portsmouth has been one of the principal naval bases on the southern coast of England since at least the sixteenth century when, in 1544, Henry VIII built Southsea Castle (a Device fort designed to guard entrances to the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour). Decreed the home of the Royal Navy by the Tudor monarch, the harbour was also departure point for Admiral Nelson’s 1805 defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. Turner here pictorialises George III’s triumphal description of the port as the ‘glory and bulwark of these Kingdoms’.1
A three-masted man-of-war, illuminated by diagonal beams of sunlight, is depicted leaving the harbour: an icon of British naval prowess. The stature and presence of the battleship is amplified by the relative size of the sailboat in the foreground and cutter at the right. Eric Shanes writes that ‘the choppy water...adds a constancy of motion to the scene, and the curved, rushing sweep of the wave on the left is subtly accentuated by the roundness of the nearby buoy’ as well as the curvature of the billowing sails.2
Behind the cutter, at the far right, is the Admiralty Semaphore: ‘a tower bearing a signalling device that could communicate with the Admiralty in London in under three minutes by means of a series of intermediate relay signals’.3 The signalling figure waving the straw hat in the rowing boat is, according to Eric Shanes, ‘visually connect[ed]’ with the Semaphore because of the ‘diagonal line of shadow in the sky beyond’ and the ‘diagonal line of the cutter’s main-yard’.4 The sailor waves to the crew on the cutter, an optimistic gesture of camaraderie and mutual respect. Shanes also notes that ‘the curve of the cutter’s mainsail also exactly repeats the curvature of the sailor’s waving arm’. In all, these instances of compositional mirroring make manifest the importance of communication at sea.
This sense of naval solidarity notwithstanding, John Ruskin writes that moments of disorder underpin Turner’s Portsmouth. ‘It is a very curious instance’, he writes, ‘of that habit of Turner’s...of never painting a ship quite in good order.’ Ruskin continues: ‘on showing this plate the other day to a naval officer, he complained of it, first that “the jib (see footnote: ‘the sail seen, edge on, like a white sword, at the head of the ship’) would not be wanted with the wind blowing out of harbour”, and secondly, that “a man-of-war would never have her fore-top-gallant sail set, and her main and mizen top-gallants furled”’.5 For Ruskin:
the disorderliness of the way in which the ship is represented as setting her sailing, gives us farther proof of the imperative instinct in the artist’s mind, refusing to contemplate a ship, even in her proudest moments, but as in some way over-mastered by the strengths of chance and storm.6
Ruskin’s observation is recalled by Eric Shanes and others who write: ‘Control versus disorder is the underlying theme here’.7

Curators Anne Lyles and Diane Perkins note that ‘the details of various monuments depicted in this watercolour’, such as the towers, spires, and cupolas of Portsmouth’s churches and civic buildings, are ‘somewhat indistinct’ but appear ‘more clearly by Lupton in the subsequent engraving’.8 They also point out that the small rowing boat in the foreground has four passengers in the watercolour drawing but five in the engraving.9
Turner made a number of pencil sketches of Portsmouth harbour and its shipping in the Old London Bridge and Portsmouth sketchbook of about 1823–4 (Tate D17918, D17922, D17924, D17928–D17930, D17932–D17935; D17944, D17946; Turner Bequest CCVI 3a, 5a, 6a, 8a–9a, 10a–12, 16a, 17a) and the Gosport sketchbook of the same date (Tate D18014–D18029, D18031–D18058, D18060–D18126; Turner Bequest CCVII 13a–21a, 22a–36, 37–71). For earlier drawings of Portsmouth see the Spithead sketchbook of 1807 (Tate D06518–D06537, D06543–D06544, D06546–D06547; Turner Bequest C1–18, 24–5, 27–30). See also a further finished watercolour of Portsmouth dated 1824 and the subsequent engravings (Tate impressions T04419, T05302–T05305, T05994).10
For the preparatory piece to the present watercolour, see Tate D17758, Turner Bequest CCII A. Folio six of the Ports of England sketchbook may depict Portsmouth (Tate D17725; Turner Bequest CCII 6).
This drawing was engraved in mezzotint by Thomas Lupton and was published in 1828 (Tate impressions T04833–T04834).
‘An Overview of Portsmouth History’, Welcome to Portsmouth, http://www.welcometoportsmouth.co.uk/portsmouth%20history.html, accessed 1 March 2013.
Shanes 1990, p.135, no.107 (colour).
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.63.
Ibid. p.64.
Eric Shanes, Evelyn Joll, Ian Warrell and others, Turner: The Great Watercolours, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001, p.159, no.60.
Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.56, no.46 reproduced.
Wilton 1979, p.354, no.477.
Stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram and with ‘CCVIII S’ at centre; inscribed in pencil ‘S’ towards bottom right and ’40’ at centre.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

How to cite

Alice Rylance-Watson, ‘Portsmouth c.1824–5 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, September 2014, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-portsmouth-r1148286, accessed 25 May 2024.