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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Sheerness c.1825

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Sheerness c.1825
Turner Bequest CCVIII T
Graphite and watercolour on white wove watercolour paper, 161 x 240 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom left
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Here Turner represents a fleet of shipping at The Nore, the confluence of the Thames and Medway rivers and the point at which the rivers meet the North Sea. Despite its often hazardous waters, many thousands of vessels passed through it on journeys to and from the ports of London, the Continent, and beyond. It was at the time the busiest naval and shipping anchorage in Britain.1 To intensify the illusion of being on the water Turner here has adopted a very low viewpoint, a compositional feature of many of his marine subjects.2
Eric Shanes writes that ‘across the anchorage from the left to right’ Turner has depicted: ‘a sheer-hulk, a floating crane that was used for masting shipping’; ‘a collier-brig of the type that Turner used frequently for travel to the north of Britain’; ‘a navy longboat flying a white ensign’ with ‘a cutter passing behind it’; and beyond that ‘a lugger’, a ‘distant sailboat’, and finally a ‘man-of-war anchored into the westerly wind’.3
John Ruskin found this drawing to be ‘one of the noblest sea-pieces which Turner ever produced’, praising its compositional minimalism and balance as well as its drama. He writes:
it has not his usual fault of over-crowding or over-glitter; the objects in it are few and noble, and the space infinite. The sky is one of his best: not violently black, but full of gloom and power...the dim light entering along the horizon, full of rain, behind the ship of war, is true and grand in the highest degree.4
Of the composition Ruskin writes:
the subtle varieties of curve in the drawing of the sails of the near sloop are altogether exquisite; as well as the contrast of he black and glistering side with those sails, and with the sea. Examine the wayward and delicate play of the dancing waves along her flank, and between her and the brig in ballast, plunging slowly before the wind...The heaving and black buoy in the near sea is one of Turner’s “echoes”, repeating, with slight change, the head of the sloop with its flash of lustre. The chief aim of this buoy is...to give comparative lightness to the shadowed part of the sea.5
A possible pencil sketch for this drawing is A Storm off the Coast:? Study for ‘Sheerness’ of about 1822–3 (Tate D17766; Turner Bequest CCIII I). There is also a loose colour study of about 1824 (Tate D25389; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 266). This drawing was engraved in mezzotint by Thomas Lupton and was published in 1828 (Tate impression T04832).
For other sketches and studies where Sheerness features as subject see the Hesperides sketchbook of about 1805–6 (Tate D05791, D05838; Turner Bequest XCIII 16, 41); the River and Margate sketchbook of about 1805–9 (Tate D06415, D06416, D06454–D06455, D06459, D06470; Turner Bequest XCIX 33a, 34, 56a–57, 59, 64a); and the Medway sketchbook of 1820 (Tate D17383–D17384; Turner Bequest CXCIX 11a, 12). There are also two oil paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1808: Sheerness as Seen from the Nore (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) and Guardship at the Great Nore, Sheerness, &c.6
Shanes 1990, p.134, no.106 (colour).
Warrell 1994, p.134, no.37 reproduced in colour.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.58.
Ibid, p.59.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.58, no.76, p.67, no.91.
Stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram at centre and with ‘CCVIII T’ at centre towards top; inscribed in pencil ‘T’ at bottom left and ‘41’ top left.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

How to cite

Alice Rylance-Watson, ‘Sheerness c.1825 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-sheerness-r1148287, accessed 25 May 2024.