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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Shipping at the Entrance of the Medway c.1807-19

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Shipping at the Entrance of the Medway circa 1807–19
Watercolour on off-white wove paper, 216 x 282 mm
Presented by W.G. Rawlinson 1913
Henry Vaughan by 1878
Sir John Charles Robinson by 1896
Gerald Robinson by 1906 and in 1908
William George Rawlinson by 1911
(see main catalogue entry)
This drawing has long been categorised as an unengraved design for the Liber Studiorum. Its title is traditional, and the composition does indeed relate in spirit to Turner’s various 1800s oils of shipping in the blustery Thames Estuary and the entrance to the Medway on its southern, Kentish shore. The dredger in the distance may be a recollection of the one in a similar position in The Confluence of the Thames and the Medway, exhibited in 1808 and subsequently in Lord Egremont’s collection (Tate T03874, displayed at Petworth House, West Sussex);1 Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey, with the Junction of the Thames and the Medway, from the Nore, exhibited in 1807 (National Gallery of Art, Washington),2 features a small boat and buoy in the foreground in a similar conjunction.
The ship towards the middle of The Mouth of the Thames, possibly exhibited in 1807 (destroyed),3 is a mirror image of the one in the centre of the present composition, and the coastline of the Isle of Sheppey in the distance is similar. The ship in monochrome silhouette tacking to the right in the oil sketch of about the same date, Shipping at the Mouth of the Thames (Tate N02702),4 shows an almost identical configuration of sails, and was perhaps the direct source; the small boat just to the left of centre in the painting, with its lowered sail, is similar to the one in the foreground of the drawing. Thus it seems that Turner is here conflating various elements from these oils, either directly or from memory, as he had to a lesser degree in rearranging the elements of the source painting for the Liber design known as Ships in a Breeze (see Tate D08114; Turner Bequest CXVI M); incidentally, the nearest ship in the latter is again similar (albeit reversed) to the central one in the present design, which Rawlinson declared in the first edition of his Liber catalogue to be ‘[a]lso known as “Ships in a Breeze.”’5
Gillian Forrester has suggested that the present design is an ‘alternative version’6 of another unengraved Liber-type drawing The ‘Victory’ Coming up the Channel with the Body of Nelson (Tate D08183; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII c) but the compositions are very different and the central vessel here does not project the sense of scale and monumentality. Closer in spirit to the present work, and ‘very similar in subject and handling’7 and size, is Shipping Scene, with Fishermen (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven); the idea of the bright sails at its centre may related to another element of the Tate oil sketch discussed above.
Turner possibly conceived the tranquil unpublished Liber plate known as Moonlight on the Medway (for drawing, see Tate D25451; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 328) and the present composition as contrasting pendants, in the same way that he produced calm watercolours of Medway scenes for the 1820s Rivers of England series (Tate D18134, D18149; Turner Bequest CCVIII A, P),8 as well as an agitated view of Sheerness – again with a dredger on the left – for The Ports of England (Tate D18153; Turner Bequest CCVIII T).9 While echoing his 1800s oils, the present design also seems to prefigure the mood of Turner’s 1830s Dutch-inspired seascapes: another version of the central ship appears in Admiral Admiral Van Tromp’s Barge at the Entrance of the Texel, 1645, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831 (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London).10 In the absence of specific evidence, the span of the Liber Studiorum’s active publication, 1807–19, is suggested here as a date range for the present work (as it is for various other unpublished designs).
Henry Vaughan owned the watercolour by 1878.11 It was in the possession of Sir John Charles Robinson by 1896,12 when, having abandoned a first version commenced in 1891,13 Frank Short etched and mezzotinted the composition,14 as one of his interpretations of the unpublished Liber plates (Tate does not hold any impressions; see general Liber introduction). Gerald Robinson owned by 190615 and still in 1908,16 and it was in W.G. Rawlinson’s collection by 1911.17
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.57–8 no.75, pl.85 (colour).
Ibid., pp.49–50 no.62, pl.73.
Ibid., p.52 no.67, pl.77 (showing engraving).
Ibid., p.119 no.175, pl.175 (colour).
Rawlinson 1878, p.176.
Forrester 1996, p.16.
Ibid., and p.25 note 91.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.386 nos.746, 749, reproduced.
Ibid., p.387 no.755, reproduced.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.191–2 no.339, pl.342.
Rawlinson 1878, p.176.
Hardie 1938, p.75.
Ibid., p.74 no.43.
Ibid., p.75 no.44, reproduced p.[123] pl.XXII.
Rawlinson 1906, p.203.
Strange 1908, p.50 under no.194, p.50.
Liber Studiorum, 1911, p.120.
Technical notes:
Washing and brushwork were followed by scratching-out on the sea and sails. A vermilion wash was used to fill some small areas outlined earlier by brushstrokes, a yellow pigment appears locally in the hull of the sailing boat, and a few strokes of blue watercolour indicate the sailor’s jersey. The overall colour is a very warm brown, touched with pink, comprising Indian red, sepia, vermilion, yellow ochre and ?Prussian blue pigments.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘X’ centre right
The darkest washes have bled through slightly from the recto.

Matthew Imms
May 2006

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Shipping at the Entrance of the Medway c.1807–19’, 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/shipping-at-the-entrance-of-the-medway-r1131793, accessed 14 June 2024.