The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

Sea Pictures: Turner’s Marine Sublime and a Sketchbook of c.1803–10

David Blayney Brown

Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Shipwreck' exhibited 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Shipwreck exhibited 1805
Tate N00476

Charles Turner and Joseph Mallord William Turner 'A Shipwreck' 1806-7
Charles Turner and Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Shipwreck 1806–7
Tate P79356
J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Shipwreck (Tate N00476) is one of the artist’s largest and most intensely dramatic pictures, unmatched at the time of its creation in its depiction of the destructive power of the sea.1 Exhibited in Turner’s own London gallery in 1805 it was bought by Sir John Leicester, who had just begun forming a collection of British art which he hoped might eventually become the basis of a national gallery. In fact, in 1807, Sir John exchanged the picture for a different subject, allegedly because the death of a family member at sea had made it unbearable. In the meantime, the picture had been accessible to visitors to his gallery at his town house in Hill Street, Mayfair, and engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner (no relation of the artist). An independent venture of the engraver’s, sponsored by subscribers including Sir John, the print was published in 1807. It was the first such reproduction of a painting by Turner and a landmark in its own right. Besides the picture, which came into the national collection as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856, Tate owns a superb proof impression of the mezzotint, with colouring and corrections by the artist himself (Fig.2, Tate P79356).
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Wreck of a Transport Ship' c.1810
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Wreck of a Transport Ship c.1810
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon
© Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa
In 1810 Turner returned to the theme again in the even larger and more vivid Wreck of a Transport Ship (Fig.3).2 This picture especially attracted sublime terminology from nineteenth-century commentators. When it was exhibited at the British Institution in 1849 a critic observed that it rendered ‘deep tragedy ... in the sublimest poetry of the art’.3 On show in Edinburgh two years later it struck Lady Trevelyan as ‘one of the most sublime and awful pictures that ever came from mortal hand’.4 Loose as these examples of adjectival usage might be, they nevertheless attest to Turner’s superlative mastery of his theme. The association of the sublime and the sea was well established in theory, whether in Hugh Blair’s observation that the ‘excessive Grandeur ... of the Ocean’ came not ‘from its extent alone, but from the perpetual motion and irresistible force of that mass of Waters’5 to Dugald Stewart’s rule that the ‘idea of literal sublimity is inseparably combined with that of the sea, from the stupendous spectacle it exhibits when agitated by a storm.’6 Turner’s two pictures of shipwreck unleashed its powers of destruction progressively, increasing, in Andrew Wilton’s words, the ‘involvement of the spectator in the scenes depicted’.7 In The Shipwreck (Tate N00476) we are still, just, observers of the rescue of survivors from a swirling vortex of waves and flotsam. In the later Wreck we have become part of the subject, awash in towering seas with the doomed sailors and soldiers whose terror we share; Lady Trevelyan spoke of its ‘dread reality’. Of the emotional responses associated with the sublime, the frisson of pleasure communicated by the picture as an aesthetic object is, quite literally, on the point of being drowned.
A century ago, introducing a chapter on Turner’s marine drawings, A.J. Finberg wrote; ‘the sublime lies only on the threshold of beauty. It succeeds, in so far as it does attain its effects, only by making extreme demands upon the acquired culture and reasoning powers of the spectator’.8 In the early 1800s Turner also explored sublime imagery and emotions in paintings and watercolours of the Swiss Alps, which he toured during the Peace of Amiens in 1802. There were visual analogies; mountains and glaciers resembling frozen waves, rather as the more ordered construct of architecture has been called frozen music. But for the contemporary audience, mountains and sea alike were seen or imagined through common experience – culture and history beyond immediate appearances. The literary critic Alan Liu has noticed, in relation to Wordsworth’s poetry, how a Swiss mountain pass was recollected mainly as a scene of the fighting that had taken place during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy.9 Similarly, for Britain as a maritime nation, the surrounding sea was at once a protection and a threat. The life of the country depended on the navy and the merchant fleet; all distant travel was by ship. From invasion, through commercial blockade to shipwreck or sinking, the sea was a place of collective nightmares. Sublimated into art, these were the more universal for the lack of topography, of the geographical boundaries of landscape. The sea was the sea.
The paradox of Turner’s marine sublime, expressed in his pictures of shipwreck, was the extraordinary realism and conviction they brought to events he had not seen or experienced, or may not be real at all. The art historian Barry Venning has made a persuasive case for the 1805 Shipwreck depicting the recent sinking of The Earl of Abergavennybut it may also have been inspired by the republication the previous year of William Falconer’s poem The Shipwreck (1772). Falconer’s strangely prophetic poem (he was drowned at sea) depicted an incident off the coast of Greece; The Earl of Abergavenny foundered off Portland Bill on the Dorset shore. If Turner’s picture refers to one or both of these, it does so by pure imagination (exactly the quality, incidentally, to which Napoleon is said to have ascribed his gravity-defying mastery of the St Bernard Pass in 1800).10 Drawings related to The Shipwreck in the Calais Pier sketchbook used several years earlier (for example Tate D04903, D04907; Turner Bequest LXXXI 2, 16) seem to have sprung from nothing more alarming than a rough landing in France in 1802. A past identification of The Wreck of a Transport Ship with the Minotaur, broken up on the Haak Sands with the loss of 570 lives in December 1810, can be ruled out by a payment from the picture’s purchaser, the Hon. Charles Pelham, to Turner in May that year.11 Rather than from particular events or newspaper reports of them, it may be that these pictures drew their energy from elsewhere; from Turner’s transformation and exaggeration of the vocabulary of Dutch and French marine painting or – as in his pictures of Alpine avalanches and snowstorms – a totalitarian view of nature that can only be explained against the background of Napoleonic imperialism.
As its title suggests, the Shipwreck (1) sketchbookin use circa 1803–10 (Tate D05376–D05427; D40694–D40696; Turner Bequest LXXXVII) is full of drawings of the subject. The notes here are published with the more detailed introduction to this sketchbook, written for Tate’s forthcoming online catalogue of the drawings in the Turner Bequest. Only a handful of drawings in the sketchbook can be directly linked to the 1805 picture, but subscribers to the 1807 mezzotint are listed, and there are two drawings for the later Wreck of a Transport Ship. There is also a probable design for an earlier, smaller marine based on the Anglo-Dutch wars, Boats Carrying Out Anchors and Cables to Dutch Men of War, in 1665 (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) exhibited in 1804.12 Thus, both the drawings and their subjects cover an extended span of time. As an insight into Turner’s mind and methods, the sketchbook illustrates an ongoing preoccupation with marine and shipwreck imagery, how he evolved his ideas and compositions through a series of variations and was able to convey the illusion of realism when he painted them. Any number of recent wrecks could have been grist to his mill, along with the dark backdrop of war. Turning from painter to collector, that Charles Pelham both subscribed to The Shipwreck and bought the Wreck might suggest a response to the subject that went beyond specific events or reportage; one that engaged with the essence of the marine sublime as deeply as did the artist himself.

Shipwreck (1) sketchbook c.1803–10

D05376–D05427; D40694–D40696
Turner Bequest LXXXVII
Pocket book, in blue and pink marbled paper covers
26 leaves of cream laid paper made on a single-faced mould
Approximate page size 116 x 184 mm
Made by John Larking at East Malling Mill, Kent, and watermarked with an ornamental fleur-de-lys incorporating the letter L and ‘1801’ or countermarked ‘J LAR...’ Probably bound by William Dickie at 120 The Strand, London
[Four blank leaves made by Van Gelder Zonen, watermarked ‘VGZ’ and with a dancing man on a globe, were added circa 1934]
Inscribed by Turner in ink ‘97. Shipwreck’ on a label on the spine and in pencil ‘Subscriber’s List’ on a label on the front cover
Endorsed by the Executors of the Turner Bequest in ink ‘No. 185 | Contains 27 leaves. Sketches in pen and ink made on both sides’, signed in ink by Henry Scott Trimmer and Charles Turner ‘H.S. Trimmer | C. Turner’ and in pencil by John Prescott Knight and Charles Eastlake ‘JPK’ | ‘C.L.E’. on the label on the front cover. A further endorsement by John Ruskin is recorded by Finberg: ‘A.B. 190. P.R. Pencil studies of Shipwreck, Glaucus & Scylla, &c. Fine. 21’
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
First Loan Collection, various venues,13 1869–1931 (55)
Turner 1775–1851, Royal Academy of Arts, London, November 1974–March 1975 (93)
Watercolours from the Turner Bequest, Tate Gallery, London, April–October 1987 (no number)
Turner: The Second Decade. Watercolours and Drawings from the Turner Bequest, Tate Gallery, London, January–March 1989 (47)
Colour into Line: Turner and the Art of Engraving, Tate Gallery, London, October 1989–January 1990 (29)
Nelson and Napoléon, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, July–November 2005 (168)
A.J. Finberg, A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest, London 1909, vol.I, pp.226–9, LXXXVII
A.J. Finberg, Turner’s Sketches and Drawings, London 1910, pp.49–51
T.S.R. Boase, ‘Shipwrecks in English and Romantic Painting’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.22, nos.3–4, 1959, p.338
A.J. Finberg, A Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Second Edition, Revised, with a Supplement by Hilda F. Finberg, Oxford 1961, pp.116–17
Gerald Wilkinson, The Sketches of Turner, R.A. 1802–20: Genius of the Romantic, London 1974, pp.66–7
Martin Butlin, Andrew Wilton and John Gage, Turner 1775–1851, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1974, p.59
Luke Herrmann, ‘Turner and the Sea’, Turner Studies, vol.1, no.1, 1981, pp.7–8, 17 note 21
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.43, 129
Eric Shanes, ‘Picture Notes: The Victory Returning from Trafalgar’, Turner Studies, vol.6, no.2, Winter 1986, p.70 note 6
Robert Upstone, Turner: The Second Decade. Watercolours and Drawings from the Turner Bequest, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.36
Anthony Bailey, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner, London 1997, pp.99, 427 note 26
Martin Butlin, ‘Shipwreck, The’, in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann eds., The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.292–3
Ian Warrell, Nicola Moorby, Sarah Taft and others, O mar e a luz: Aguarelas de Turner na colecção da Tate, exhibition catalogue, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon 2003, pp.44, 145
Pieter van der Merwe in Margerette Lincoln ed., Nelson and Napoléon, exhibition catalogue, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich 2005, p.156
This sketchbook contains various drawings of shipwrecks, vessels in distress and ships including the Victory, and lists of subscribers to Charles Turner’s mezzotint published in 1807 after Turner’s picture The Shipwreck (Tate N00476), which had been exhibited at Turner’s Gallery in 1805.14 Four sketches relate directly to the picture. Another seems to anticipate an earlier oil, Boats Carrying Out Anchors and Cables to Dutch Men of War, in 1665 (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), shown at the Royal Academy in 1804.15 There are also two sketches related to The Wreck of a Transport Ship (Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon), of about 1810.16 The ‘Glaucus and Scylla’ mentioned by Ruskin in his endorsement is no longer in the book (and so far untraced) but was presumably related to the unpublished plate of that subject in the Liber Studiorum, the drawing for which (Tate D08170; Turner Bequest CXVIII P) has been dated 1810–15.17 Dated by Finberg to 1805 in the Inventory, the sketchbook must actually have been in use over a longer period beginning as early as 1803. Finberg’s later comments in Sketches and Drawings, that it ‘contains sixteen pages in all’ and ‘the succinct record of an actual shipwreck’, apply to the related Shipwreck (2) sketchbook(Tate D05428–D05445; D40697–D40700; Turner Bequest LXXXVIII).
Boats Carrying out Anchors was the first of an occasional series of historical marines that Turner based on the seventeenth-century Anglo-Dutch wars. A probable sketch for it is on folio 1 (D05376). The picture was bought by Samuel Dobree, who appears in the sketchbook’s list of subscribers to the plate of The Shipwreck. Although Turner’s label for the book and some of its contents might imply a closer link to that picture, and commentators beginning with Finberg have described a number of the drawings as studies for it, only four (folios 7, 9, 13 verso and 17 verso, D05388, D05386, D05427, D05391; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 13, 11, 52, 16) have any real similarity and the lists of subscribers (folios 1 verso, 2 verso and 5 verso, D05377, D05379, D05399; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 2, 4, 24) are the most important points of connection. The mezzotint was published – as the first print after a painting by Turner – on 1 January 1807. The engraver, whose own speculation it was, advertised it in 1805 and it was ready by the middle of the following year. The subscribers listed by the artist are a starry array of noblemen, patrons, collectors and painters young and old. They include Sir John Leicester, who bought the picture in 1806 but exchanged it the next year for The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston),18 allegedly because the loss of a family member at sea had made the subject too painful. Turner’s composition studies for The Shipwreck are in the large Calais Pier sketchbook (Tate D04902–D05072; Turner Bequest LXXXI), while the sketches in the present book are slighter and usually of variant compositions. Butlin and Joll, among other commentators, thought them ‘probably from actual wrecks’ without suggesting what these might be. Finberg in Sketches and Drawings, this time mistakenly assigning them to Shipwreck (2), described them as ‘the series of trial compositions ... before the final design of the picture was fixed’.19
How little most of these sketches really impacted on The Shipwreck is shown by the fact that the same commentators generally agreed that its subject was imaginary, or invented in response to the republication in 1804 of William Falconer’s poem The Shipwreck (originally published in 1762), with illustrations by the marine painter William Pocock. In a comprehensive study of shipwreck imagery, Barry Venning has since argued that the picture was inspired by the 1805 wreck of the East Indiaman, The Earl of Abergavenny, off Portland Bill after she was holed in a storm.20 It is not an exact depiction, however, as her masts and rigging were not damaged whereas Turner shows them smashed. In the sketchbook, too, they are often seen in various stages of disintegration. With his long connection with Margate, Turner must also have known of the loss of the Hindoostan, another Indiaman, off the town in 1803. She too had kept her masts intact. Anthony Bailey has drawn attention to another Margate wreck, that of the Mars in 1787.21
Turner need not have witnessed any of these wrecks for them to play on his imagination for the most famous disasters tended to be remembered for years, as was the case with the wreck of yet another Indiaman, the Halsewell, beneath cliffs near Seacombe on the Isle of Purbeck in 1786. Turner referred to her sinking in verses written between 1811 and 1813,22 and Eric Shanes has identified Turner’s watercolour The Loss of an East Indiaman made for Walter Fawkes about 1818 (private collection)23 with the Halsewell.24 As her mainmast, mizzenmast and rigging were cut away two days before she finally broke up, in an attempt to stabilise her, she might be a better candidate for the earlier picture. But Turner surely intended a more universal comment on the horrors of shipwreck, while the sketches in this sketchbook were experiments in dramatic composition which, with the violence of the stormy sea, made the picture appear so compellingly convincing and ‘real’. As Turner realised it, the picture invites readings beyond the realms of illustration or reportage, as a marine display of the sublime, as Andrew Wilton has argued,25 or a ‘metaphor for the dangers facing Britain, as Napoleon’s armies engulfed the rest of Europe’ in the words of Pieter van der Merwe.26 As the sketchbook also contains sketches of the Victory and perhaps other ships returned from the Battle of Trafalgar, Turner may even have had in mind the terrible storm that beset the surviving fleet during its return voyage.
The Wreck of a Transport Ship for which there are two sketches in the book (folios 4 verso and 5, D05383, D05398; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 8, 23) was painted about 1810 and developed the themes of The Shipwreck. It was bought by the Hon. Charles Pelham, later 1st Earl of Yarborough, whose name also appears among the subscribers to the Shipwreck print. These presumably earlier sketches along with a payment from Pelham in May 181027 indicate that Turner cannot have started out to depict the wreck of the Minotaur, on the Haak Sands on 22 December that year. However, when the picture was exhibited in 1851 this subject was applied retrospectively to its title, its realism having presumably proved so persuasive that it became associated with a true event. A recent suggestion is the sinking, during a sudden storm in Table Bay off Cape Town in November 1799, of the troop ship Sceptre.28 Again, how completely imaginary one thinks Turner’s original idea for the Transport Ship will depend on one’s assessment of the related sketches in this book. They depict a stricken ship that is much larger than in most of the other sketches, in deeper waters, and nothing is known of Turner’s experience at this period to suggest he witnessed such an event. As in The Shipwreck its realism must be a clever illusion, developed through these experimental sketches.
The various sketches of shipwrecks are drawn in ink, mostly with brown or brownish grey wash. Some further sketches from actual shipping, fishing boats or naval vessels including the Victory (folio 27, D05418; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 43) are in pencil. These must have been drawn off Sheerness, Gravesend or on the River Medway and overlap with material in the Nelson sketchbook (Tate D05446–D05490; D40701–D40705; D41427; Turner Bequest LXXXIX) collected when Turner visited the Victory after Christmas 1805. One (folio 27 verso, D05419; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 44) is inscribed ‘Gravesend’ and sketches inside the back cover (D40696), if of the hospital ship Argonaut, will have been made on the Medway where she was moored. The most tantalising aspect of the book is a double-page sketch of coastline seen from the sea, labelled ‘Flushing’ and ‘Ostend’ (folios 10 verso–11, D05405–D05406; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 30–31). Turner is not otherwise known to have crossed the Channel or North Sea within sight of the Belgian or Dutch coast between 1803 and 1810. The missing ‘Glaucus and Scylla’ is another mystery, although Turner was using this book at the time when he was working on the Liber Studiorum and there may have been some connection in his mind between scenes of wreck and the coastal setting of Glaucus’s pursuit of the Nereid Scylla. Scylla, a daughter of Typhon, was transformed into rocks between Italy and Sicily that were famously dangerous to shipping.29 Charles Turner, engraver of The Shipwreck, also worked on the Liber and Turner’s friend William Frederick Wells, a major subscriber to the print, helped to instigate the project. A design for its title page is on folio 14 verso (D05385; Turner Bequest LXXXVII 10).
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.43 no.54.
Ibid., pp.128–9 no.210.
Athenaeum, 16 June 1849.
Cited by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.129.
Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 3rd ed., London 1787, p.58.
Dugald Stewart, Philosophical Essays, 3rd ed., Edinburgh 1818, p.422.
Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 1980, p.46.
A.J. Finberg, Turner’s Sketches and Drawings, London 1910, p.41.
Alan Liu, ‘The History in Romanticism’, in Duncan Wu ed., Romanticism: A Critical Reader, Oxford 1995, pp.108–9.
‘“Nothing but imagination! ... Imagination rules the world”’, when complimented by one of the gunners who had hauled the French cannon over the pass; as told by John S.C. Abbott, The History of Napoleon Bonaparte , vol.II, New York 1883, p.318. As a caution, Abbott’s ‘highly novelistic’ writing and subjection to ‘the influence of romanticism’ has been noted; Liu 1995, p.119 notes 33, 35.
As recorded in the Hastings sketchbook (Tate D07686; Turner Bequest CXI 59).
Butlin and Joll 1984., pp.40–1 no.52 (pl.62).
For the full tour of the First Loan Collection, see Ian Warrell, ‘R.N. Wornum and the First Three Loan Collections: A History of the Early Display of the Turner Bequest Outside London’, Turner Studies, vol.11, no.1, Summer 1991, p.39.
Butlin and Joll 1984 , p.43 no.54 (pl. 64).
Ibid., pp.40–1 no.52 (pl.62).
Ibid., pp.128–9 no.210 (pl.213).
Gillian Forrester, Turner’s ‘Drawing Book’: The Liber Studiorum, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.135.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.48–9 no.61 (pl.72).
Finberg 1910, p.49.
Barry Venning, ‘A Macabre Connoisseurship: Turner, Byron and the Apprehension of Shipwreck Subjects in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Art History, vol.8, no.3, September 1985, pp.303–19.
Bailey 1997, p.96.
Devonshire Coast No.1 sketchbook, folio 56 verso (Tate D08474 ); see also Andrew Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.171.
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p.357 no.500.
Eric Shanes, Turner’s Watercolour Explorations 1810–1842, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.34–5.
Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 1980, pp.46–7, 145.
Van der Merwe in Lincoln ed. 2005, p.156.
See the Hastings sketchbook (Tate D07686; Turner Bequest CXI 59).
Warrell 2003, pp.44–5, 145.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, xii and xiii. Turner returned to the story in a painting exhibited in 1841 (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas); Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.244–5 no.395 (pl.399).
David Blayney Brown is Curator of 19th Century British Art at Tate.

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Sea Pictures: Turner’s Marine Sublime and a Sketchbook of c.1803–10’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 25 April 2024.