The subject for this watercolour is unidentified but the oval borderless format of the scene suggests that it is a preparatory sketch for a vignette illustration. Jan Piggott tentatively interpreted it as a view of St Michael’s Mount with a sketch of an angel.1
The visible details appear to show a boat at sea in the bottom right-hand corner against a backdrop of mountains and a violently coloured, possibly, stormy sky. The watermark on the support indicates a date of no earlier than 1842 which precludes its connection with any known literary project. In fact, there are closer similarities with a number of other watercolour studies which appear to depict Continental landscapes (see Tate D27540
; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 23).
The only other clue regarding the work is the quote inscribed by the artist underneath the image, ‘In these fell regions by Arzina caught’. This can be identified as a line by James Thomson from a poem ‘Winter’, part of his famous masterpiece, The Seasons (1730). The relevant stanza concerns an account of the tragic fate of the Tudor explorer, Hugh Willoughby who died in the inhospitable seas of near the coast of Murmansk in Russia:
Such was the Briton’s fate,
As with first prow (what have not Britons dared?)
He for the passage sought, attempted since
So much in vain, and seeming to be shut
By jealous nature with eternal bars.
In these fell regions, in Arzina caught,
And to the stony deep his idle ship
Immediate seal’d, he with his hapless crew
Each full exerted at his several task,
Froze into statues; to the cordage glued
The sailor, and the pilot to the helm.
(Thomson, ‘Winter’, The Seasons, lines 929–39)
Turner was extremely familiar with Thomson's work. He owned a copy of Dr Anderson’s Works of the British Poets with Prefaces Biographical and Critical
(1795) which contained the poet’s complete works and frequently adopted quotes from The Seasons
to accompany his exhibited oil paintings. Adele Holcomb has demonstrated how parallels can be drawn between some of Turner’s vignette illustrations for Samuel Rogers and Thomas Campbell and sections from Thomson’s The Seasons
Since there are no records of Turner’s intentions to illustrate an edition of Thomson it might be supposed that this study is unconnected to a particular project. Turner may have jotted down the line of poetry as a reminder to himself of the feeling and spirit he was trying to inject into his landscape.