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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner St David's Head from Porthsallie Bay 1795

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
St David’s Head from Porthsallie Bay 1795
Turner Bequest XXVI 29
Pencil and watercolour on white wove paper, 201 x 268 mm laid down on white card with washline border, trimmed and inset in modern facsimile, 278 x 345 mm
Inscribed by Turner in ink ‘Turner’ bottom right
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Stamped in black ‘XXVI 29’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This drawing, unusually, was extracted from the sketchbook by Turner himself and given a washline mount. Finberg’s account of its original condition and Ruskin’s attempt to ‘conceal’ its true subject illuminates the changes of curatorial approach to the Turner Bequest over the course of a few decades:
The rocks and distance were, I think, coloured on the spot – the procedure adopted in pages 20, 22, and 27. The sky, foreground, and figures were probably added afterwards. Then the leaf was cut from the book, laid down on a piece of board, and decorative borders were added, almost certainly by the artist himself. The title of the drawing, “St David’s Head”, was printed in pencil, also by the artist, and on the margin above he wrote the additional information “Porthsallie Bay”.
The drawing, unlike most of Turner’s sketches, was evidently intended for sale. But it either remained unsold, or, if sold, was bought back afterwards, for it was in the artist’s possession at his death.
Its fate, after it had become the property of the nation, throws a rather unpleasant light on Mr. Ruskin’s conception of the task of arranging and cataloguing these sketches and drawings. It was included in the first 460 drawings chosen by Mr. Ruskin for public exhibition. But Turner’s carefully-ruled and tinted border did not meet with approval, so a cheap, common-looking mount was cut to cover it up. The new mount was too small, for it covered not only the border but also half an inch and more on each of the four sides of the drawing itself, thus destroying the balance of the composition and the general effect of the design. Turner’s mount was not only covered up, it was defaced with liberal daubs of glue to hold the cheap and nasty mount of commerce in position. ... the drawing was afterwards recklessly exposed to the light, which bleached it, while the parts protected (unintentionally) by the mount retained their full force and vigour.
Having got Turner’s tell-tale title concealed in this way, – for the title was printed on the border – Mr. Ruskin was free to fancy anything he liked a about the subject-matter. The rocks, though they are not at all like those in Plymouth Sound, reminded him of the Mew Stone. The drawing was therefore christened ‘The Mewstone, Plymouth Sound’, it was dated ‘about 1791’, and the public were told that it was ‘Interesting as the first thought of one of his (Turner’s) best known works’.1
Finberg 1918, pp.98–9.
Technical notes:
The centre of the sheet has darkened and the watercolour has correspondingly faded from prolonged exposure, with unequal borders of a few millimetres around the edges unaffected, having been protected by Ruskin’s mount. The latter had been removed by the time Finberg reproduced Turner’s (complete with its lettering) in 1918.1
The original mount was evidently badly damaged by the blobs of glue securing Ruskin’s, and has since been largely cut away and replaced by a facsimile which does not replicate Turner’s inscriptions. ‘Porthsallie Bay’ appeared in pencil at top centre; it is worth adding that the style of lettering he chose for his main title in pen and ink below the centre of the drawing, ‘St David’s Head’, appears to have been unique to this work.
Ibid., pl.XXXII.
?Blank (laid down by the artist).

Andrew Wilton
April 2012

How to cite

Andrew Wilton, ‘St David’s Head from Porthsallie Bay 1795 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, April 2012, 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-davids-head-from-porthsallie-bay-r1140909, accessed 01 November 2020.