Plymouth with Mount Batten; Plymouth

Both of these scenes demonstrate Turner’s ability to introduce a human interest into topography. The verses he wrote on tour in 1811 include lines on the soldiers garrisoning the coast, watching ‘cat-like’ the young maidens walking by, as perhaps seen here in Plymouth with Mount Batten. The later watercolour of Plymouth depicts the lusty antics of sailors carousing on shore leave, a subject Turner also explored in watercolours of Dartmouth and Falmouth (not in exhibition).

Sunshine on the Tamar

Whether this watercolour is of the Tavey, remains uncertain. At a show of Turner’s watercolours at the Egyptian Hall, London, in 1829, one exhibit was of the Tavey and in 1855 this picture was reproduced as a chromo-lithograph entitled The Banks of the Tavey. For unknown reasons, John Ruskin, who later owned this watercolour, altered its title to Sunshine on the Tamar. It may, however, be a scene on the river Plym – compare the oil sketch On the Plym Estuary, near Crabtree.

As a mature artist, Turner’s control of the watercolour medium is remarkable. Here he uses a stippling technique to represent the sparkling of sun-light breaking over the hills. The dazzle of early morning, coupled with the use of colour, makes Dartmouth look as though it were a Mediterranean harbour.

after Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Dartmouth, on the River Dart, engraved by S.W. Reynolds’ 1825
after Joseph Mallord William Turner
Dartmouth, on the River Dart, engraved by S.W. Reynolds 1825


Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Okehampton, on the Okement’ c.1824
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Okehampton, on the Okement c.1824

As with Dartmouth, so here Turner interprets the notion of the picturesque rather differently to his contemporaries. Instead of presenting a close-up and detailed view of Okehampton Castle, he is as much concerned to show the activity of the woodsman in the foreground. History is clearly important, as indicated by the castle’s looming presence, yet it is but a backdrop to present-day life. There is no nostalgia for the past in this image: just as trees surrender to the axe, so historical epochs come to an end.

Ivy Bridge

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Ivy Bridge, Devonshire’ c.1814–15
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Ivy Bridge, Devonshire c.1814–15

vybridge was a major staging post on the London to Plymouth mail route. Mail coaches, in their distinctive yellow livery, were the fastest means of travel in the 1810s, covering the distance between London and Plymouth in a little less than twenty-four hours. It was possible to break one’s journey at Ivybridge to make sketches, before picking up the next mail coach passing through, and it was frequently recommended to artists as a picturesque location. The figure hurrying over the bridge may be intended as a joking allusion to an artist who has tarried too long to make his connection.

St Mawes at the Pilchard Season

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘St Mawes at the Pilchard Season’ exhibited 1812
Joseph Mallord William Turner
St Mawes at the Pilchard Season exhibited 1812

This watercolour records the crisis in the pilchard industry, resulting from the war with Napoleon. The Channel blockade had cut off the foreign (Catholic) markets on which the pilchard industry relied and the domestic market was too small to sustain it. Whereas, in 1812, Turner’s oil painting (also in this room) depicted the pilchard industry’s normal operation, here he shows pilchards landed on the beach to be sold to local farmers as manure. St Mawes Castle, built in the reign of Henry VIII to defend the coast from Catholic invasion, dominates the background. Turner may have wanted to point out the irony that St Mawes’ prosperity now required peaceful trade with Catholic countries.

Turner has taken considerable liberties with the height of the hills around Boscastle to accentuate the drama of the landscape. The ship is being warped into the harbour with a rope attached to a capstan on the jetty.

after Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Entrance of Fowey Harbour, Cornwall, engraved by W.B. Cooke’ published 1820
after Joseph Mallord William Turner
Entrance of Fowey Harbour, Cornwall, engraved by W.B. Cooke published 1820

Turner’s human sympathies are very apparent in this depiction of shipwreck and rescue amidst a violent sea. The pitching of the boats makes palpable the choppiness of the water and the very real danger of the situation. The energy of the waves crashing onto the headland is taken up in the storm-clouds lowering behind the blockhouse and arcing over the estuary.

Turner shows the pilchard industry as it operated in times of plenty, with the catch being dipped out of the sea into the waiting boats and then carried to the curing sheds in gurries – compare this image with the watercolour of c.1823 showing the industry in disarray. The pilchard fishery was a very profitable trade, allowing some firms such as the Hichens family of St Ives to amass considerable wealth. Robert Hichens (1782–1865) also invested in Cornish copper mines as a merchant adventurer and set up in London as a stock-broker in 1802. If Turner hoped to attract Hichens, or someone like him, to buy this record of Cornish industry, he had no luck as the painting remained on his hands.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Hulks on the Tamar’ ?exhibited 1812
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Hulks on the Tamar ?exhibited 1812

The Royal Navy’s decommissioned ships were stationed in various ports as floating depots for accommodation quarters or prisons for convicts awaiting transportation. Later, they were used for French and other prisoners of war. Six hulks had been moored in the Hamoaze (the lower reaches of the Tamar) for that purpose. However, with the opening of Dartmoor Prison in 1809, the hulks were no longer used as gaols. Turner, evidently fascinated by these ships, made numerous sketches of them. This painting was bought by the Earl of Egremont, one of Turner’s early patrons and, whilst part of the Tate’s Collection, continues to be displayed with the collections at Petworth House in Sussex.