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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Leader Sea Piece circa 1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Leader Sea Piece circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVI X
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 183 x 260 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, untitled, published Charles Turner, 29 March 1809
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design, or rather the lettering of the prints derived from it, is the main evidence for the existence of a painting of the subject, dubbed ‘The Leader Sea Piece’, and dated to circa 1807–9 by Butlin and Joll.1 The Liber etching is lettered simply ‘Possession of Wm Leader Esqr’, whereas the completed engraving’s caption seems vaguer: ‘Original Sketch of a Picture for W. Leader Esqr.’ Although William Leader owned Turner’s painting Conway Castle, circa 1803 (private collection), 2 apparently having acquired it directly from the artist, there is no other record of a further commission beyond the presence of Leader’s name in Turner’s checklists of Liber subjects (see below); it has been tentatively suggested that Turner could have been ‘evolving his painting at the same time as he evolved his “reproduction”’.3
Rawlinson had ‘heard on good authority that this fine subject is taken, almost without alteration, from a picture by W. Vandervelde’.4 The composition can be compared, for example,5 to a painting in the National Gallery, London (NG977), thought to be a studio work after Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633–1707). Turner had painted Dutch Boats in a Gale (‘The Bridgewater Seapiece’), exhibited 1801 (private collection, on long-term loan to the National Gallery, London)6 as a pendant to another of the Dutchman’s works.
There is a variant watercolour at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (12.279), dated by Gillian Forrester to the same period as the Turner Bequest study, with a warship – silhouetted rather than highlighted – in the left distance, and a sailing boat in the right foreground, seen side-on;7 the latter is comparable to those in the Dutch Boats in a Gale (see above) and the later Wreck of a Transport Ship, exhibited 1810 (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon).8 The overall composition is close to another painting, Sheerness as Seen from the Nore, exhibited 1808 (private collection),9 an affinity acknowledged in the alternative title for the plate in the early Liber literature: ‘The Guard-Ship at the Nore’. As the early provenance of Sheerness has not been definitely established, Forrester notes that ‘it is tempting to suggest that the picture may have belonged to William Leader, and that the Liber plate is simply a variant of the finished painting.’10
The present design includes the two main elements as engraved – the steeply-rolling boat in the foreground and the warship anchored to the right. They were the only vessels etched by Turner; the brightly-lit sailing boat in the distance between the two of them and a second warship anchored in the distance on the left (with other light, diagonal strokes on the horizon, perhaps indicating further sails) were only added at the engraving stage. There is a mezzotint proof with the additional boat and ship added in gouache, as counterpoints to the major elements (Royal Academy of Arts, London: Allen Collection 20B).11 Stopford Brooke observed how the sea is divided into ‘strips of alternate dark and light ... These horizontal stripes emphasize the horizontal lines of the anchored ships, and double the impression they are designed to make of firm and stately watchfulness.’12
As the published plate was untitled, though lettered as discussed above, the present title is the customary form noted by Rawlinson in 1878.13 The composition is recorded, as ‘3[:] 3 Leaders’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12156; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 23a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)14 dated by Finberg and Forrester to before the middle of 1808.15 It also appears later in the sketchbook, as ‘9 Leaders’, in a list of ‘Marine’ subjects (Tate D12164; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 27a).16
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Charles Turner, bears the publication date 29 March 1809 and was issued to subscribers in part 4 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.17–21;17 see also Tate D08121, D08122, D08123, D08126; Turner Bequest CXVI T, U, V, Y). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00950) and the published engraving (A00951). It is one of nine published Liber subjects in Turner’s ‘Marine’ category (see also Tate D08104, D08105, D08114, D08129, D08133, D08138; CXVI C, D, M, CXVII B, F, K).
In 1885, Frank Short etched and mezzotinted the central section of the left-hand side of this composition,18 focusing on the boat in the foreground, to fit the format of Stopford Brooke’s book of Liber commentaries19 (copies in Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room; see general Liber introduction for Short’s other interpretations of the published plates).
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.126–7 no.205.
Ibid., pp.107–8 no.141, pl.146 (colour).
John Gage, ‘Turner and John Landseer: Translating the Image’, Turner Studies, vol.8, no.2, Winter 1988, p.8.
Rawlinson 1878, p.47.
Forrester 1996, p.69.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.12–13 no.14, pl.11 (colour).
Exhibited Turner’s Liber Studiorum, Containing Choice Impressions of the First States, Etchings, Touched Proofs, together with the Unpublished Plates, and a Few Original Drawings for the Work, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London 1872 (111); Rawlinson 1878, p.46; Forrester 1996, p.68 no.20 ii, reproduced, p.69.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.128–9 no.210, pl.213 (colour).
Ibid., p.58 no.76, pl.86 (colour).
Forrester 1996, p.69.
Ibid., p.69 note 3 no.20 iii, reproduced p.68.
Brooke 1885, p.70.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.46–7 no.20.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.40–9; 1906, pp.49–58; Finberg 1924, pp.65–84.
Martin Hardie, The Liber Studiorum Mezzotints of Sir Frank Short, R.A., P.R.E. after J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Catalogue & Introduction, London 1938, p.53 no.15.
Brooke 1885, bound opposite p.[69].
Technical Notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘1794 | J Whatman’.1 The sky is softly washed, with an effect analogous to aquatint. Washing and brushwork were followed by scratching-out. There is heavy scratching out for the flotsam at the lower right, replaced by a sea bird in the print. Washing-out was used for the masts, with details of the ship put in while the paper was wet. The overall very warm brown colour results from the presence of a single Indian red pigment.2
Forrester 1996, p.68 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘503’ centre, and ‘Pictu’ [‘in lettering style of the etching’1] bottom left

Matthew Imms
August 2008

Forrester 1996, p.68.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Leader Sea Piece c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, 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-leader-sea-piece-r1131726, accessed 21 June 2024.