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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Shields Lighthouse c.1823-6

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Shields Lighthouse circa 1823–6
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 308
Pencil and watercolour on white wove paper, 234 x 283 mm
Watermark ‘J Whatman | Turkey Mills | 1819’
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Inscribed in pencil ‘CCLXIII–308’ and ‘(571b)’ bottom centre
Stamped in black ‘CCLXIII – 308’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
(see main catalogue text)
The publication of this subject as ‘Shields Lighthouse’ first occurs in Rawlinson’s catalogue of Turner’s engravings,1 presumably by association with the superficially similar moonlit composition of Shields, on the River Tyne, engraved in 1823 for the Rivers of England from a watercolour of that year (Tate D18155; Turner Bequest CCVIII V).2 The lighthouse shown in the latter appears to be the Low Light Tower, on a square plan with a broad, shallow upper level for the windows revealing its light. It still stands on the Fish Quay at North Shields, on the north bank of the River Tyne east of Newcastle, and is shown in the Rivers of England design from upstream with the busy industrial South Shields foreshore on the right. The lighthouse in the present composition appears to be a more generic, tapering tower with a tall glass lantern, seen on the horizon across an empty bay or estuary with little else indicated by way of topographical context.
The composition was engraved in mezzotint,3 traditionally ascribed to Turner himself (see the ‘Little Liber’ introduction). The steel plate was found in his studio after his death, ‘completely corroded’.4 Dupret notes that it was sold in ‘1873–74’, without giving further details; possibly it was the plate called ‘Seapiece, with Shipping at Night’ in the 24 March 1873 Christie’s sale of prints from Turner’s studio5 (see the Introduction). The development of the design through three trial proof stages is described by Rawlinson and Dupret, who mention the present watercolour as the source.6 At first the moon was very large and bright, and surrounded by a clear-cut halo and rays, as in the watercolour; then a buoy was added in the right foreground (not present in the watercolour) and other details were toned down and lightened; finally, the diameter of the moon was reduced. Luke Herrmann has noted that this process shows ‘Turner’s skill in developing his ideas direct on the steel plate’7 here and elsewhere in the ‘Little Liber’. Tate’s impression (T04915) is a late nineteenth-century one, and is very muted and dim due to the poor condition of the plate.8
In relation to the mezzotint, Andrew Wilton has described how the composition ‘dispels any association of darkness with fear, while reaffirming that it is truly sublime’ in one of Turner’s ‘profoundest conceptions’.9 Anne Lyles and Diane Perkins have noted the fundamental similarity – a central light source over water – between this design and Francis Danby’s painting Sunset at Sea after a Storm, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824 and again at the British Institution in 1825 (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery), which was engraved by F.C. Lewis in 1826.10 The possible wider influence of Danby’s composition on the ‘Little Liber’ is discussed in the introduction to the series. Ian Warrell has placed the Shields subjects in the context of Turner’s increasing interest in moonlight effects in the early 1820s,11 while in cataloguing the ‘Little Liber’ prints, Rawlinson had initially characterised them all as dealing with moonlight effects (again, see the Introduction).
As discussed in the introduction, this ‘Little Liber’ subject is possibly the one noted as ‘Moonlight’ among others listed inside the front cover of Turner’s Worcester and Shrewsbury sketchbook, in use in 1831 (Tate D41053; Turner Bequest CCXXXIX).
Another watercolour study of moonlight over the sea (Tate D25314; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 192) has previously been associated with the present design and has also been included in the ‘Little Liber’ category here. Wilton has compared the present watercolour with another rough ‘colour beginning’ of Moonlight, with Shipping (Tate D25305; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 183),12 while Dupret notes an affinity with the late, unpublished Liber Studiorum design Moonlight on the Medway (Tate D25451; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 328; see catalogue entry for full details).
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908, p.cx, and vol.II 1913, pp.210, 386–7 no.801.
Wilton 1979, p.384 no.732, reproduced.
Rawlinson I 1908, p.cx, and II 1913, pp.210, 386–7 no.801.
Rawlinson II 1913, p.387.
The First Portion of the Valuable Engravings from the Works of the Late J.M.W. Turner, R.A. ..., Christie, Manson & Woods, London 24 March 1873 (927).
Rawlinson II 1913, p.385; Dupret 1989, p.36.
Herrmann 1990, p.149.
See Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.60.
Wilton 1980, p.160.
See Lyles and Perkins 1989, p.59.
Warrell 1999, p.81; see also Warrell 1991, p.32.
See Andrew Wilton, in Gage, Ziff and Alfrey 1983, p.232; see also Jack Lindsay, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work: A Critical Biography, London 1966, ill.26, as ‘Colour Structure: Moon burst’, reproduced together with variant Little Liber design (Tate D25314; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 192, ill.27, as ‘Moon and water’).
Technical notes:
The bare paper has darkened in the centre from prolonged display, up to around 20 mm around the central composition. The painted image is somewhat irregular around its edges, and there are various colour tests around the outer edges of the sheet. The folds evident at the top and bottom and on the right were perhaps made to hide these distracting borders at some point in Turner’s working process once the central composition had been established. There are ripples marked in pencil at the bottom left, and a little pencil work on the ship on the horizon to the left of the moon. The moonlight reflections have been reinforced in white over the broad background colour of the sea, within which a narrower reflection had apparently been reserved as bare paper initially. The pale sails on the right have been applied over the dark sky, while the full moon appears to have been defined or strengthened in pencil over its golden halo, then painted over in white.
As Ian Warrell has noted, there appears to be an engraving plate mark around the composition;1 this measures 155 x 215 mm, and was impressed from the back of the sheet. It does not quite correspond with the folds already noted, being a few millimetres inside them. There are repairs around the points at the bottom left and right just outside the corners of the impression, where the paper apparently became weakened. Warrell states that ‘the indentation matches the engraver’s plate’,2 although the platemark of the impression in the Tate collection (T04915) is 186 x 250 mm. However, the engraved image measures 150 x 211 mm, corresponding closely to the raised area in the present sheet, so it may be that Turner used a different plate or some other rectangular object to define the limits of the composition before engraving it on the same scale.
John Ruskin knew of the print from this design, then known as ‘Moonlight, on Calm Sea’, in 1857, when it was exhibited at Marlborough House, London as no.113 (subsequently given the National Gallery number 571b), together with no.112 (later 571a), ‘Study of a Sky, with a Cathedral Tower, and Evening Mist on the Meadows’, another ‘Little Liber’ design, now usually known as Gloucester Cathedral (Tate D25430; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 307). He had a more prosaic explanation for the impression:
Both of these were engraved by himself. The ragged edge of the second [the present watercolour] is left visible, that the student may see the mode of the drawing’s execution. It will be thought at first it has been strained on the block, and taken off; but on looking close it will be seen that it has never been strained, but is done on the back of a piece of a paper which has folded up a parcel; and the brush has continually caught on the edges of the folds as it was struck across them.
It is not necessary to make drawings always on paper that has come off parcels; but it is necessary to be able to do so; and if a drawing cannot be done thus on loose paper, it cannot be done on strained paper.3
Warrell notes a similar impression mark on the sheet used for the ‘Little Liber’ design Bridge and Monument (Tate D17193; Turner Bequest CXCVII C).4
See Warrell 1991, p.38; and 2004, p.83.
Warrell 2004, p.83.
‘Catalogue of the Sketches and Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Exhibited in Marlborough House in the Year 1857–8’ in Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.280 (partly quoted in Warrell 2004, p.83).
See Warrell 1991, p.38.
Blank, save for inscriptions in pencil ‘C’ top right, ‘573 B’ centre, and ‘CCLXIII – 308’ bottom centre. There are abrasions at the corners where the sheet was previously mounted. Finberg was mistaken in noting: ‘Reverse : another colour study, but stuck down tight’.1

Matthew Imms
November 2011

Finberg 1909, II, p.837.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Shields Lighthouse c.1823–6 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, November 2011, 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-shields-lighthouse-r1133276, accessed 23 May 2024.