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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The 'Victory' Coming up the Channel with the Body of Nelson c.1807-19

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The ‘Victory’ Coming up the Channel with the Body of Nelson circa 1807–19
Vaughan Bequest CXVIII c
Pencil and watercolour on on white wove lightweight writing paper, 200 x 285 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
?Lady Ashburton by 1878
Henry Vaughan after 1878
(see main catalogue entry)
Turner’s composition, traditionally assumed to be an unexecuted design for the Liber Studiorum, is closely based on his oil painting The Victory Returning from Trafalgar (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven)1 possibly exhibited at his gallery in 1806 along with The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (Tate N00480) to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson’s simultaneous triumph and death in the battle against the combined French and Spanish fleets on 21 October 1805. The Victory Returning was bought by Walter Fawkes, possibly in 1806. There are differences in the sails of the boats in the foreground, but the most noticeable change is that the ship seen on the left of the painting from the port side, in grey silhouette with the wind against her, has been replaced by one following the central vessel towards the viewer – and comparable to the nearest in the Liber design known as Ships in a Breeze (see Tate D08114; Turner Bequest CXVI M).
In an established tradition of ships’ portraits,2 all three ships are one, and are generally thought to represent Nelson’s flagship, as indicated by the painting’s traditional title – The Victory Returning from Trafalgar, in Three Positions – although not particularly accurately in terms of her basic configuration, nor showing the battle damage she had suffered. In both the painting and the drawing, she is apparently shown south-west of the Isle of Wight, off the Needles, with the central ship of the three shown effectively sailing in the wrong direction, heading south. In fact, she had put into Spithead (off Portsmouth to the north-east of the island) for repairs to her masts in December 1805 before continuing up the Channel and on to Sheerness, where Turner drew her on or soon after her arrival in the Shipwreck (1) and Nelson sketchbooks (Tate; Turner Bequest LXXXVII, LXXXIX). Accounts differ, but it seems that at least two of the masts had been severely damaged.3 Given Turner’s careful research on board for his painting of the battle, these discrepancies from what might have been expected in a ‘documentary’ account of the Victory’s return (including the failure to show flags at half-mast) have led Eric Shanes to suggest that the painting may have pre-dated Trafalgar and may not even have originally been intended as a specific representation of the Victory.4
However, it seems likely that Turner would have used the studies in the Nelson sketchbook (Tate D05486, D05487, D05489; Turner Bequest LXXXIX 28a, 29, 30) in planning the original painting, implying that it did at least represent the Victory, perhaps patriotically shown in her prime rather than battered and unserviceable. Turner may have included the smaller boats to allude ‘to the humbler aspects of seafaring that underpinned Britain’s dominance as a maritime power.’5 Gillian Forrester has suggested that the Liber-type drawing Shipping at the Entrance of the Medway (Tate N02942) is an ‘alternative version’6 of the present subject, though the compositions differ greatly.
Although a date of circa 1806–8 has been suggested in recent publications, in the absence of specific evidence the span of the Liber Studiorum’s active publication, 1807–19, is given here as a range (as it is for various other unpublished designs). The sheet was probably manufactured in 1807 (see the technical notes below), and Turner would have had many opportunites to see the 1806 painting in Walter Fawkes’s collection at Farnley Hall – indeed, it is shown hanging there in an 1818 bodycolour study of the drawing room (private collection).7
Beginning in 1891, Frank Short etched and mezzotinted this composition,8 as one of his interpretations of the unpublished Liber plates; a second version was abandoned9 (Tate does not hold any impressions; see general Liber introduction). He gave an account of his vexed attempts to study the painting, then in a private collection; he saw enough to note ‘puzzling differences in the ships. In the drawing the swelling lines of the hull in the centre ship are a good deal like those of the Victory we know in Portsmouth harbour, while in the painting she is made very wall-sided – almost upright sides.’10 It is not clear who owned the watercolour at that time: in 1878 Rawlinson noted it as ‘believed to be in the possession of Lady Ashburton’11 – probably Leonora Caroline Baring, Baroness Ashburton,12 or possibly Louisa Caroline Baring, the Dowager Baroness.13 It subsequently entered Henry Vaughan’s collection.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.46–7 no.59, pl.69 (colour).
Shanes 1986, pp.68, 70.
Ibid., p.68.
Ibid., pp.68, 70.
Peiter van der Merwe in Margarette Lincoln ed., Colin White, N.A.M. Rodger and others, Nelson & Napoléon, exhibition catalogue, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London 2005, p.247.
Forrester 1996, p.16.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.368 no.592, reproduced.
Hardie 1938, pp.75–7 no.45, reproduced p.[125] pl.XXIII.
Ibid., p.77 no.46.
Quoted ibid., p.76.
Rawlinson 1878, p.177.
Hon. Vicary Gibbs ed., The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom: Extant, Extinct or Dormant by G.E.C.: New Edition, Revised and Much Enlarged, Vol.I, London 1910, p.278.
Ibid., p.277.
Technical notes:
The pencil work is limited and slight, even around the ships. Washes and sketchy brushstrokes define the sea; rough reserves of white were left for the sails, with details then brushed on. Indian red was used for details of the boats; details were washed locally, then defined with small brushstrokes. There is some light scratching-out on the sea, and washing-out in the sky. The overall colour is a cool brown, comprising umber and Indian red pigments.1 The sheet is among five unengraved Liber-type drawings once owned by Henry Vaughan of which four ‘certainly, and all five probably, derive from the “Studies for Liber” sketchbook’,2 some leaves of which are watermarked ‘J Whatman | 1807’ (Tate; Turner Bequest CXV); the others are Tate D08179–D08182; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII Y, Z, a, b.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Forrester 1996, pp.16, 25 note 86 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8); see also Bower, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘23 x 18 [?½]’ bottom centre
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVIII – c’ bottom left

Matthew Imms
May 2006

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The ‘Victory’ Coming up the Channel with the Body of Nelson c.1807–19 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2006, 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-victory-coming-up-the-channel-with-the-body-of-nelson-r1131794, accessed 23 October 2021.