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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Study for 'The Loss of an East Indiaman' c.1818

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Study for ‘The Loss of an East Indiaman’ c.1818
Turner Bequest CXCVI N
Pencil, watercolour and chalk on white wove paper, 311 x 460 mm
Watermark ‘1816 | J Whatman
Inscribed by Turner in pencil ‘[Begun] for Dear Fawkes | of Farnley’ towards bottom left
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CXCVI – N’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This ‘colour beginning’ has long been recognised as relating to a watercolour of about 1818, The Loss of an East Indiaman, c.1818 (The Higgins, Bedford),1 which was painted for Turner’s close friend and major patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire2 (see David Hill’s overall Introduction to the present section). Of a similar size, it effectively forms a pair3 with the breezy daylight scene of warships in the watercolour A First Rate Taking in Stores (also Higgins collection),4 reportedly painted in the course of a few hours at Farnley one day in November 1818 when Fawkes is said to have spontaneously requested ‘a drawing of the ordinary dimensions which will give some idea of the size of a man of war’.5 A third watercolour of about the same size, also owned by Fawkes, Man-of-War, Making a Signal for a Pilot off the Tagus (Museums Sheffield),6 may have been part of the same campaign of work.7
While shipwrecks are a recurring theme in Turner’s work, Eric Shanes as discussed the particular subject of the finished East Indiaman watercolour at length, suggesting that it shows the wreck of the Halsewell off Dorset in January 1786, a notorious, prolonged disaster involving the loss of over 160 passengers and crew, which had been depicted at the time by several visual artists in addition to the published written accounts.8 Turner himself referred to in a manuscript poem relating to his 1811 West Country tour; see the Devonshire Coast, No.1 sketchbook (Tate D08474; Turner Bequest CXXIII 56a).9 In the finished design, the rolling deck is carried further up towards the top right, providing an arena for scores of clinging and scrambling figures;10 Andrew Wilton has observed: ‘As an exercise in portraying the horror of a sea storm it is one of Turner’s most interesting experiments, for it concentrates on the plight of the ship’s crew almost to the exclusion of the sea itself’.11 Shanes has described the powerful chiaroscuro of the present study,12 while Adele Holcombe has written of its elemental effect, ‘showing a leviathan half in shadow that appears to roll within a trough of darkness, is one of the most impressive’ of the colour beginnings: ‘It belongs to that category of Turner’s work which fundamentally extends the experience and idea of the sublime by implications of physical immediacy ...; by the membranous texture of the image which recalls the most primary of physical boundaries, that which separates the body from all that is outside it.’13
Shanes has speculated that since Turner ‘customarily elaborated numbers of watercolours in succession ... so that he would never have to wait for them to dry’, the present work may have been painted concurrently with the First Rate as a complementary ‘try-out’, if not the completed version too (the two finished works being exhibited at Fawkes London home in April 1819); this sheet includes ‘exactly the same yellow-ochre visible on the hull of the First Rate’, while the thematic contrasts of a warship at peace and a merchant vessel ‘losing its long battle with the elements’.14 Evelyn Joll has questioned that sequence, suggesting that this sheet’s 1816 watermark allows for the possibility of the East Indiaman having already been completed before Fawkes proposed the First Rate subject; as the former was exhibited in 1819 as ‘Loss of a Man of War’ it appears Fawkes then understood that to be the subject (the vessel is armed, but there are women and possibly children among the throng), but perhaps found the close-up depiction making the ship ‘seem as big as an ocean liner’ disconcerting, hence a subsequent request for a drawing to give a clearer ‘idea of the size’.15
On direct examination, Turner’s inscription appears to the present writer and some predecessors to start with ‘Begun’,16 continuing with ‘for Dear Fawkes of Farnley’. Others, including Finberg, have read it as ‘Beginning’,17 or offered both readings.18 The comment is generally supposed to have been added some time after Fawkes’s death in 1825,19 which affected Turner very deeply (to the extent that he did not visit Farnley Hall again, despite continuing good relations with the family);20 Joll concurs, as it would explain why the reticent Turner ‘inscribed it in a more affectionate manner than he would have done if Fawkes had still been alive and liable to read it’.21 Andrew Wilton has suggested in passing that the present work might have been ‘a rapid reminiscence of the composition, made after Fawkes’s death in 1825, to which the MS comment seems to allude; but it is more likely that the drawing itself was preparatory for the watercolo[u]r and was merely annotated later.’22 Wilton has also proposed another variant reading, suggesting that the scrawled word usually taken as ‘of’ might be ‘at’,23 which would help to support Shanes’s thesis.
The phrase ‘Colour Beginning’ coined by Finberg in his 1909 Turner Bequest Inventory to groupings of colour studies of varying purposes and degrees of finish (most conspicuously Turner Bequest CCLXIII24) may have stemmed directly from his reading of Turner’s inscription here;25 for a discussion of the function of such works in general, see the Introduction to the ‘England and Wales Colour Studies c.1825–39’ section.26 In relation to his ‘colour beginnings’ practice, suggesting that ‘his preservation of a record of that process was surely intentional’, David Hill has considered the wider context of Turner’s phrase:
This seems to me extraordinary in many ways. The note has an elegiac tone as if it were made some time after Fawkes’s death in 1825. We can imagine Turner sifting through some of the sheets in a corner of his studio and being moved by the memory of his days in the company of his Yorkshire friend. But it is remarkable enough that he kept such sheets at all. Most other artists of his time would have consigned them to the fire as valueless. Turner not only valued it highly enough to keep it, but also to inscribe it, and the inscription clearly implies a sense of posterity.27
Wilton 1979, p.357, as ‘Loss of a man-of-war’, albeit noting the subject ‘may be rather “The wreck of an East Indiaman”’.
See Finberg 1909, I, p.600, Wroot 1924, p.241, Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Wilton 1977, p.29, Wilton 1979, p.357, Wilton 1980, p.147, Wilton 1983, p.205, Perkins 1990, p.29, Shanes 2000, p.134, and Moorby 2007, p.22.
See Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Perkins 1990, p.29, Warrell 2993, p.291, Warrell 1994, p.108, and Shanes 2000, p.135.
Wilton 1979, p.357, no.499, reproduced.
As noted from family anecdotes by Mrs Edith Mary Fawkes, the wife of Fawkes’s grandson, as transcribed in Shanes 2001, p.13; see ibid., pp.13–15 for the fullest technical account.
Wilton 1979, p.357 no.501, reproduced.
See ibid., and Wilton 1977, p.29; but see also David Hill in Hill, Stanley Warburton, Mary Tussey and others, Turner in Yorkshire, exhibition catalogue, York City Art Gallery 1980, p.57 no.85, suggesting a date of about 1809.
See Shanes 1997, pp.34–5; see also Wilton 1980, p.147, and Joll 2002, p.272.
See Shanes 1997, pp.34, 91 note 7.
See ibid., p.33.
Wilton 1980, p.147; see also Wilton 1983, p.205, Warrell 1993, p.291, and Warrell 1994, p.108.
See Shanes 1997, pp.33–4.
Holcomb 1983, p.53.
Shanes 2001, p.14; see also Shanes 2000, p.135, Brown 2007a, p.13, and Brown 2007b, p.8.
Joll 2002, p.272.
See Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Wilton 1979, p.357, Wilton 1980, p.147, Wilton 1983, p.205, and Hill 1997, p.7.
See Finberg 1909, I, p.600, Wroot 1924, p.241, Moorby 2007, p.22, and Rosenberg 2007, p.115.
See Perkins 1990, p.29, Brown 2007a, p.13, and Brown 2007b, pp.8, 26,
See Wroot 1924, p.241, Wilton 1974, p.83, Wilton 1976, p.107, Wilton 1983, p.205, Perkins 1990, p.29, and Shanes 1997, p.33.
See for example Wroot 1924, p.241.
Joll 2002, p.272.
Wilton 1977, p.29.
Wilton 1980, p.147.
Finberg 1909, II, p.814.
See for example Shanes 1997, pp.11, 18, 32 note 17, 33, Brown 2007b, pp.8, 26, and Moorby 2007, p.22.
See also Eric Shanes, ‘Beginnings’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.21–3; among many other accounts, see also Wilton 1974, p.26; and Wilton 1979, p.187.
Hill 1997, p.7.
Technical notes:
An irregular loss measuring some 53 x 42 mm has been made good with similar paper at the bottom left corner and washed to match the tones of the adjacent areas.
Blank, laid down on a sheet of white laid paper trimmed to match; stamped in black ‘CXCVI – N’ bottom left.

Matthew Imms
September 2016

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Study for ‘The Loss of an East Indiaman’ c.1818 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, September 2016, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-study-for-the-loss-of-an-east-indiaman-r1183670, accessed 23 October 2021.