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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner St Abbs and the Bass Rock 1818

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 2 Recto:
St Abbs and the Bass Rock 1818
Turner Bequest CLXV 2
Pencil on white laid paper, 99 x 159 mm
Stamped in black ‘CLXV 2’ bottom left descending vertically
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
According to inscriptions in the back of Turner’s Edinburgh, 1818, sketchbook (Tate D13586; Turner Bequest CLXVI 70a), he crossed over into Scotland at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Between here and Dunbar, where Turner began making sketches for the Provincial Antiquities, lies the fishing village of St Abbs. The drawing at the top of this page shows the rocks off the harbour of St Abbs. Turner would have been impressed by the danger posed to boats by these rocks which block the harbour to the north, and it was perhaps this that inspired him to record them. Turner’s Tantallon Castle watercolour design for the Provincial Antiquities (1821, Manchester City Galleries)1 includes jagged rocks in the foreground of a choppy sea, and his Dunbar watercolour design (circa 1823, private collection), shows a small boat being dashed on the rocks of the coast as its crew gets thrown overboard.2
The drawing at the bottom of the page is of the Bass Rock. Shown with the coast behind it, this may have been taken from a boat. As Walter Scott points out in his description of the Bass Rock in the tenth number of the Provincial Antiquities, the rock’s ‘main inhabitants are sea-fowl, in such immense quantities, that they literally darken the air when the discharging of a gun puts them on the wing’.3 Turner has included a flock of birds swooping over the waves. The rock is now a bird sanctuary with a colony of 140,000 Atlantic gannets.4
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.426 no.1067.
Ibid., no.1066.
Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland with descriptive illustrations by Sir Walter Scott, Bart., Vol.II, London and Edinburgh, 1826, p.[181].
‘The Wildlife’, Scottish Seabird Centre website, http://www.seabird.org/wildlife.asp> accessed 16 October 2007.

Thomas Ardill
October 2007

How to cite

Thomas Ardill, ‘St Abbs and the Bass Rock 1818 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, October 2007, 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-st-abbs-and-the-bass-rock-r1131866, accessed 25 July 2021.