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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Landing of George IV at Leith 1822

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Landing of George IV at Leith 1822
Turner Bequest CCIII J
Pencil on two sheets of off-white wove paper, stuck together, 173 x 300 mm (variable)
Blindstamped with the Turner Bequest stamp at the lower centre-right
Stamped in black ‘CCIII – J’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
A.J. Finberg catalogued this pencil study on two sheets of paper fastened together with red sealing wax as a harbour scene showing the arrival or departure ceremony of King George IV to Scotland.1 In his study of the sketches and paintings associated with the royal visit, Gerald Finley identified the event as the King’s landing at Leith Harbour on 15 August 1822.2
It was a momentous occasion as it was the first time that a reigning monarch had stepped foot on Scottish soil since 1633. Turner’s drawing catches this moment with the King, wearing a tricorn hat and admiral’s uniform, standing on the landing stage having just disembarked from the barge that brought him from his yacht, the Royal George, to Leith. He is accompanied on the stage by the Duke of Dorset and the Marquis of Winchester, with the Marquis of Lothian standing on the slope to welcome him to Scotland.3
Turner travelled to Edinburgh to witness and record the events associated with the King’s visit (see George IV’s Visit to Edinburgh Tour Introduction), and on 15 August took to the water to sketch the King’s journey to shore (Tate D17517; Turner Bequest CC 5a), before taking his place among the other artists on the Custom House Quay to see the landing. He made three sketches of the landing from this point (Tate D17608, D17622, D17632; Turner Bequest CC 58a, 66a, 71a), all showing a flurry of activity as the barge approached the landing stage. Turner must have worked at a furious pace to record enough of the details of the scene and activity of the event.
The current study contrasts with the rapid (though careful) jottings of the on-the-spot sketches, indicating that it was not made at the time, but at a later date from sketches and memory. The viewpoint of the composition confirms this, as the earlier sketches show that Turner stood on the Custom House Quay to the north-west of the landing stage, rather than to the southwest which is the viewpoint of the study.
Why then, did Turner make this study? Finley suggests that the activity of the on-the-spot sketches was ‘not clearly expressed’ and that he may have decided that the subject of the King in the royal barge was not as suitable as the King actually landing,4 suggesting that this elaborate study was made simply to clarify the scene that Turner also represented in a tiny thumbnail composition in the King at Edinburgh sketchbook (composition ‘3’, Tate D40979; Turner Bequest CCI 43a). This thumbnail belongs to a set of nineteen compositions that Finley has suggested represents a proposal for a series of paintings of the royal visit to Scotland. Some of these were worked up into oil sketches, or used for other designs, but the series as a whole was never completed.5
An explanation of where the current study may fit into the project can be made with reference to composition ‘1’ of the cycle, which depicts what Finley has called the Mission of Sir Walter Scott (see D40979). That composition, also based on sketches made on the spot, was developed as a study in the King at Edinburgh sketchbook (Tate D17672; Turner Bequest CCI 1), which in turn became the basis of an unfinished oil painting, The King’s Departure from the ‘Royal George’ in the Royal Barge, circa 1823 (Tate N02880).6 The present study may have been envisaged in the same way as a study for an oil painting that never materialised.
The reason that this study is much more developed than the Mission of Sir Walter Scott study may be that it was a more complex picture. Details are slight in the Mission painting, not only because it is unfinished, but also because of the stormy subject, and as a result the rough study was sufficient as the basis of the picture. In contrast, the present study indicates that the Landing of George IV would have been a complex and elaborate painting, with hundreds of figures, and the action taking place on a minute scale. It therefore had to be carefully planned.
Details in the study also indicate that Turner was developing a narrative that would be appropriate for a painting in the royal progress series. While the on-the-spot sketches show a flurry of activity, with a sense of movement and action, the study instead captures a decisive moment. The King, having disembarked from the barge, has not yet stepped foot on Scottish soil. Instead he stands on a temporarily erected floating platform, which can be seen as a transitional place between the journey to Scotland and the landing proper. While his oarsmen stand to attention, either the Duke of Dorset or the Marquis of Winchester waves, the Marquis of Lothian steps down to greet him, and his subjects wait in anticipation, the King has turned away from the other figures to face the picture’s viewer, caught in a moment of stillness and apparent contemplation. There is a tension between his pose and the urging actions of the gentleman who points to the ramp, and the Marquis of Lothian who beckons him forward with his arms outstretched. This creates a sense of anticipation, like that felt by the spectators of the event,7 emphasising the grandeur and significance of the event; a fitting subject and theme for a painting in Turner’s proposed Royal Progress cycle.
Finberg 1909, I, p.617, CCIII J.
Finley 1975, p.32.
Robert Mudie’s, An Historical Account of His Majesty’s Visit to Scotland, Edinburgh 1822, p.100.
Finley 1981, pp.28, 33.
Finley 1981, pp.32–8.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.154 no. 248b.
Mudie 1822, pp.99–100.
Technical notes:
The drawing is made across two sheets of cut-down paper (roughly octavo size), the right pasted over the left. The rough edges, especially at the top right and left-hand side, are probably a result of the paper having been roughly torn by the artist, rather than subsequent damage. Part of a watermark, ‘W’, can be seen on the bottom sheet, probably part of the word ‘Whatman’, though there is no visible date. The paper is quite dirty and marked with red specks of the sealing wax that Turner used to attach the two sheets, especially at the join, and small splashes of brown ink or wash at the centre. At the top right the paper has wrinkled, probably owing to water damage. The signs are typical of damage inflicted by the 1928 Thames flood, which affected many works on paper in the Turner Bequest.
Inscribed in pencil ‘34’ centre
Inscribed in pencil ‘CCIII | J’ bottom right
Stamped in black with the Turner Bequest monogram and ‘CCIII – J’ at the bottom left

Thomas Ardill
December 2009

How to cite

Thomas Ardill, ‘The Landing of George IV at Leith 1822 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, December 2009, 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-the-landing-of-george-iv-at-leith-r1140410, accessed 23 May 2024.