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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Sunset: A Fish Market on the Beach c.1835

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Sunset: A Fish Market on the Beach c.1835
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 302
Watercolour and gouache on white wove paper, 225 x 183 mm, laid down on white wove paper, 254 x 208 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCLXIV – 302’ bottom right of inner sheet
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Among frequent maritime and coastal subjects, the present work’s theme was a longstanding if occasional one for Turner, in paintings such as Fishmarket on the Beach of about 1802–4 (currently untraced),1 Sun Rising through Vapour; Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish, exhibited in 1807 (Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London),2 and Fishmarket on the Sands – Hastings?, exhibited in 1810 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri),3 as well as watercolours including Fishmarket on the Sands, ?Hastings of 1810 (currently untraced),4 Hastings: Fishmarket on the Sands of 1824 (Hastings Museum and Art Gallery),5 and Fish Market on the Sands of as late as about 1840 (private collection).6
The precise purpose of this particular treatment, with its unusual upright formant, is unclear. While Lindsay Stainton speculated that it might relate to various illustration projects of the 1830s, the ‘faintly Venetian appearance of the boats’ suggesting a link to Samuel Rogers or Byron,7 Eric Shanes has proposed that it belongs with four vignettes with fish and shellfish in the foreground and the sea in various moods beyond (Tate D25465, D25466, D27520, D27521; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 342, 343, CCLXXX 3, 4), perhaps from the early 1840s.8 Shanes notes: ‘According to the Schedule of the Turner Bequest drawn up by the artist’s executors in 1854, the “4 finished vignettes of fish” were made for Turners patron, the whaling magnate Elhanan Bicknell,9 who possibly commissioned them to beautify some proposed book on sea fishing that remained unwritten or unpublished.’10 If so, it is unclear why they remained with Turner,11 but it is possible that they were intended to act as chapter headings,12 with the present work as a frontispiece.13 It is here dated to about 1835, in line with Meredith Gamer’s entries for the four vignettes.14
In his 1857 book The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin declared a general principal that ‘however white an object may be, there is always some small point of it whiter than the rest’:
You must therefore have a slight tone of grey over everything in your picture except on the extreme high lights; even the piece of white paper, in your subject, must be toned slightly down, unless (and there are thousand chances against its being so) it should all be turned so as fully to front the light. By examining the treatment of the white objects in any pictures accessible to you by Paul Veronese or Titian, you will soon understand this.15
He used the present work as an example by comparison with Old Master paintings:
It is one of his most wonderful works, though unfinished. If you examine the larger white fishing-boat sail, you will find it has a little spark of pure white in its right-hand upper corner, about as large as a minute pin‘s head, and that all the surface of the sail is gradated to that focus. Try to copy this sail once or twice, and you will begin to understand Turner‘s work. Similarly, the wing of the Cupid in Correggio‘s large picture in the National Gallery [Venus with Mercury and Cupid, c.1525; NG10] is focussed to two little grains of white at the top of it. The points of light on the white flower in the wreath round the head of the dancing child-faun, in Titian‘s Bacchus and Ariadne [1520–3; also National Gallery, London, NG35], exemplify the same thing.16
Unlike the highlights in the Correggio and Titian oils mentioned, the one Ruskin makes such an example of here has been reduced, presumably by prolonged display and the gradual slight darkening of the paper and dimming of the surrounding colours, effectively to the point of invisibility.
It is possible that this design was one that the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) had in mind in a letter of 20 February 1883 to his artist son Lucien (1863–1944), recalling Turner Bequest ‘watercolours of fish and fishing equipment, etc.’ he had seen at the National Gallery during his time in London in 1870–1.17
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.110 no.145, pl.150.
Ibid., pp.53–4 no.69, pl.79.
Ibid., pp.75–6 no.105, pl.112.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.357 no.503.
Ibid., p.358 no.510.
Ibid., p.408 no.926, reproduced, as c.1830s.
Stainton 1982, p.74.
See Shanes 1997, pp.29, 102.
See Evelyn Joll, ‘Bicknell, Elhanan (1788–1861)’ in Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.24–5.
Shanes 1997, p.29; see also Jan Piggott, Turner’s Vignettes, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.90 under no.54.
See Shanes 1997, p.30.
See Piggott 1993, p.90.
See Shanes 1997, pp.97, 99.
On possible later dating, see also Ian Warrell in David Blayney Brown, Sarah Skinner and Warrell, Coasting: Turner and Bonington on the Shores of the Channel, exhibition catalogue, Nottingham Castle 2008, pp.63, 64 note 28.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.66.
Ibid., pp.66–7 footnote.
Quoted in Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Manchester and New York 2007, pp.121–2 note 23.
Technical notes:
Apparently after the sky had been worked up to a fairly advanced stage, the smaller sheet, painted right up to its regular edges, was mounted on another, trimmed slightly irregularly then or since to within about 12–15 mm all round; the washes in the fluid, sandy foreground and down the shadowy right-hand side are actively carried over onto it. The two sheets were once folded in half horizontally, coinciding more or less with the horizon line.
Blank; inscribed in pencil ‘38’ above centre; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CCCLXIV – 302’ bottom centre.

Matthew Imms
September 2016

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Sunset: A Fish Market on the Beach c.1835 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, October 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-sunset-a-fish-market-on-the-beach-r1182321, accessed 26 May 2024.