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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Rocks ?on the South Coast of Wales 1798

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Rocks ?on the South Coast of Wales 1798
Turner Bequest XLI 37
Pencil and watercolour on white wove paper, 293 x 460 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom centre
Stamped in black ‘XLI – 37’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
There has been general, if tentative, agreement that this drawing shows the Needles, off the Isle of Wight, rather than any formation of rocks on the South Welsh coast. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll discuss the drawing in relation to Turner’s first exhibited oil painting, Fishermen at Sea of 1796 (Tate T01585),1 which was traditionally thought to incorporate a view of the Needles, but it is extremely unlikely that this sheet belongs to a sufficiently early date to have served in the genesis of that picture, when the rest of the book, with which it is stylistically consistent, was evidently used in or around 1798. There is no evidence that Turner returned to the Isle of Wight in that year.
This drawing would constitute a very generalised and schematic depiction of the Needles and the identification is implausible on several counts, although there exist few other contenders. Finberg tentatively suggested Oxwich Bay in the Gower peninsular,2 but no feature corresponding to this exists there, and Turner is not known to have visited Gower. A cave-like arch in the cliffs at Barafundle Bay, on the south coast of Pembrokeshire, is a closer match, but also not altogether convincing; there are other curious rock formations in the neighbourhood of Tenby. If this depicts a view on the Pembrokeshire coast we must suppose a hitherto unsuspected detour from his accepted route in 1798; and two important large watercolours of Pembroke Castle exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 and 1806 (National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto),3 might be invoked as evidence that the town and its neighbourhood had been recalled to his mind by a more recent visit than that of 1795; studies related to these occur in the Studies for Pictures sketchbook, in use around 1799–1802 (Tate D03994, D04103; Turner Bequest LXIX 1, 89). A more famous rock arch is Durdle Door, on the coast of Dorset near Lulworth, which perhaps corresponds most closely to the geology of Turner’s drawing, but it is hard to fit such a detour into his 1798 itinerary.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.1–2 no.1, pl.1 (colour).
Finberg 1909, I, p.99.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, respectively p.331 no.280, pl.64 (colour), no.281, reproduced.
Technical notes:
The sheet is faded and discoloured from exposure. A large tear at the bottom left corner has been repaired.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

How to cite

Andrew Wilton, ‘Rocks ?on the South Coast of Wales 1798 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, April 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-rocks-on-the-south-coast-of-wales-r1173284, accessed 27 September 2021.