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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

The Fire at Sea sketchbook

Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 1–43
Sketchbook quarter bound in boards in brown leather and marbled paper
43 leaves of brownish grey wove paper, 139 x 228 mm
Numbered 231 as part of the Turner Schedule in 1854 and endorsed by the Executors of the Turner Bequest in ink and pencil on inside front cover (see entry for D41445)
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This sketchbook of chalk drawings and colours studies on thick, greyish-brown paper was first dated to around 1834 by A.J. Finberg in his 1909 inventory of the Turner Bequest.1 A large part of the volume has been left blank. Several of the worked-up pages feature calm and wooded waterside landscapes although these are significantly outnumbered by maritime motifs, either sketched from the coast or dramatizing events out at sea. The landscapes and scenes out at sea are rendered in watercolours and gouache, varying from broad wash studies such as folio 6 recto (D27797; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 6) to more detailed compositional designs such as folio 5 recto (D27796; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 5). By contrast, red, black, and white chalks were deployed for the coastal scenes towards the back of the sketchbook. Finberg suggested that these may have been created at a somewhat later date.2
The sketchbook is named after a sequence of four colour studies towards the beginning of the volume which depict shipping of various kinds caught in rough waters. Each contains hot passages of red or pink brushwork leading to the supposition that a fire on-board ship is the subject. The piece on folio 5 recto (D27796; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 5) is the most resolved of these compositions and shows a longboat full of figures heading for a distant moonlit vessel as it attempts to escape a lightning-stricken sail boat. The remaining three works in this vein are found on folios 2 recto (D27793; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 2), 3 recto (D27794; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 3), and 4 recto (D27795; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 4). Ships ablaze at sea were a recurrent theme of Turner’s output in the 1830s. In 1835, for instance, the engraver and publisher Charles Heath illustrated that year’s edition of The Keepsake annual with a print after Turner with that title; see Tate impression T04629. The studies in The Fire at Sea sketchbook have been particularly associated with a large oil painting in the Turner Bequest of about 1835 (N00558),3 apparently representing the demise of the female convict-ship Amphitrite in the English Channel in 18334, although they are also closely comparable with Stormy Sea with Blazing Wreck of about 1835–40 (N04658).
The three other colour studies in the volume are calmer in subject and cooler in palette, depicting tranquil waterside scenery. Two are found towards the beginning of the sketchbook on folios 1 recto (D27792; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 1) and 6 recto (D27797; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 6). The third piece is found in the final pages on folio 43 recto (D27845; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 43). The buildings in these landscapes are frequently pale in tone with strong vertical accents as if to suggest columned classical buildings. For particularly closely comparable scenery, see Turner’s finished watercolour of the landscape garden at Stourhead of about 1817.5
More numerous than the colour studies in this volume are the red, black, and white chalk drawings depicting coastal vistas and seaside activity. Four pieces from this group simply depict a low sun hanging over the sea; these are worked onto folios 37 recto (D27834; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 37a), 38 recto (D27835; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 38), 40 verso (D27840; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 40a), 42 verso (D27844; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 42a). Others respond to the variety of human life to be found along the early nineteenth-century English coast, depicting fishermen working their nets on a beach, for example, on folio 39 verso (D27838; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 39a), or a fashionably-dressed couple strolling beneath cliffs, as on folio 41 verso (D27842; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 41a). Finberg first speculated that these scenes were captured at Turner’s regular seaside recourse at Margate in Kent. This supposition was subsequently strengthened by the research of Courtauld Institute curator Joanna Selborne, who recognised the similarities between the jetty recorded on several of these pages (e.g. folio 35 verso; D27830; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 35a) and ‘Javis’s Landing Place’ at Margate, used by steamers from London when low tide rendered the main harbour unusable.6
The full listing of these seaside chalk drawings is as follows: folio 32 verso (D27824; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 32a); folio 33 recto (D27825; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 33); folio 33 verso (D27826; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 33a); folio 34 recto (D27827; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 34); folio 34 verso (D27828; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 34a); folio 35 recto (D27829; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 35); folio 35 verso (D27830; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 35a); folio 36 verso (D27832; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 36a); folio 38 verso (D27836; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 38a); folio 39 verso (D27838; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 39a); folio 41 recto (D27841; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 41); folio 42 recto (D27843; Turner Bequest CCLXXXII 42).
A.J. Finberg, A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest, London 1909, vol.II, p.908.
Ibid. p.909.
Martin Butlin, Andrew Wilton and John Gage, Turner 1775–1851, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1974, p.139, no. 496.
Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, p.109.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979 / The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, London 1979, p.536 no. 496.
Joanna Selborne, Andrew Wilton and Cecilia Powell, Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld Collection, exhibition catalogue, Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere 2008, p.134, 137.

John Chu
March 2015

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How to cite

John Chu, ‘The Fire at Sea sketchbook’, sketchbook, March 2015, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, August 2016, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/the-fire-at-sea-sketchbook-r1181652, accessed 18 May 2022.