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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Shields, on the River Tyne 1823

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Shields, on the River Tyne 1823
Turner Bequest CCVIII V
Watercolour on white wove watercolour paper, 154 x 216 mm
Watermark [Wha]tman | [Turkey]
Inscribed ‘Jmwt 1823’ in ink at lower left
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
In this moonlit nocturne Turner depicts keelmen shoveling coal from flat-bottomed barges into the hold of a collier brig. Coal was carried down the river Tyne by these vessels from the coalfields near Newcastle and processed by the Shields keelmen who worked through the night to meet the insatiable demand for the fuel. The rectangular North Shields lighthouse can be seen in the distance below the moon, and on the opposite bank, on the right, South Shields is identifiable by the ‘artificial hills formed by the cinders from the salt and glass works and the ballast discharged by the colliers’.1 Tyneside coal was a keystone of the national economy: by 1826, three years after this drawing was produced, of the two million tons of coal imported to London only 125,000 came from other domestic sources.2
‘Few rivers’, writes Barbara Hofland, ‘can boast such as union of picturesque beauty and commercial importance as the Tyne’.3 The sky is eerily lit with a full moon, projecting a beam of silvery light onto the river. Sombre circus and cumuli amass, encroaching on the moon, threatening to occlude it. The waters are still and rendered in a similar colour range to the sky: blues and greys heightened with white and pale yellow. At the right of the picture in brilliant vermilion and white, is the glow of a burning brazier of coal. The elemental rudiments of industry are represented here, harnessed and exploited: earth signified by coal, soot and salt, water by the Tyne, fire by the incineration of coal. The ‘arresting vitality born of this combustion’ and the cover of cool evening moonlight transforms these industrial activities into an embodiment of ‘the industrial sublime’.4 Ian Warrell also points out that the composition of this watercolour is much like one of Claude’s seaport views. This association, he writes, ‘lends a heroic stature to the men and women working amid the ruddy firelight, who replace Claude’s stock mythical figures’.5
According to art historian William Rodner, ‘Turner’s watercolour reveals much about the early coal business, particularly advances in transporting the material’ and the implied consequences of these innovations to the community of keelmen.6 The ‘laborious process of shovelling cargo by hand from the keel into the vessel’ was being streamlined by technological developments.7 As George Head observes that ‘the hardy race of keelmen’ were slowly, but inevitably, being ‘deprived of their ancient occupation...by means of new appliances’ designed to improve efficiency and speed of transportation.8 One of these ‘new appliances’ is depicted in Turner’s watercolour at the top right: a wheeled container on a primitive railway link installed by the mines to take buckets of coal straight from the source to the riverbank.
As with all the drawings in this series, the colouring is rich and complex, comprised of layered stipples and hatches of complementary and contrasting tones to achieve a striking prismatic effect.
Turner had visited Shields several times between 1797 and 1822, yet there appear to be no specific preliminary sketches for this view.9 The other view of the river Tyne featured in the Rivers of England series is of course Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Tate D18144; Turner Bequest CCVIII K). Ian Warrell writes that both of these views probably have their origins in Turner’s 1818 journey through the north on his way to Scotland.10 Warrell also notes that the combination of moonlight and Shields lighthouse served as the stimulus for several watercolours associated with the Little Liber project (Tate D17193, D25314; Turner Bequest CXCVII C, CCLXIII 192) as well as the oil painting of 1835 Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night (Wiedner Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).11 Painted for the industrialist Henry McConnell, the composition is closely based on the present Rivers of England drawing.12
This drawing was engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner and published in 1823 (Tate impression T04790).
Rodner 1997, p.99.
Hofland 1827, p.22, pl.18.
Rodner 1997, p.99 and Wilton 1980, p. 158, no.73 and p.169, no.86.
Warrell, Kelly and others 2007, p.109, no.69, reproduced in colour.
Ibid. pp.99–100.
George Head, A Home Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835, London 1835, p.344; quoted in Rodner 1997, p.100.
Warrell, Kelly and others 2007, p.109, no.69, reproduced in colour.
Warrell 1991, p.32, no.12 reproduced.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.191–2, no.360.
Gaunt and Hamlyn 1994, p.104, no.37.
Stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram at centre and with ‘CCVIII A’ at centre towards top; inscribed in pencil ‘A’ at centre and ‘22’ at centre towards left.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

How to cite

Alice Rylance-Watson, ‘Shields, on the River Tyne 1823 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, August 2014, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-shields-on-the-river-tyne-r1146215, accessed 25 May 2024.