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                  J.M.W. Turner: the source                                                                                         

                                  J.M.W. Turner's early Sea Pieces and Shipwrecks

                                                  Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
r malcolm setters / graham setters  

"Was the lengthy hiatus Turner was thought to be on at the close of the eighteenth century, a marathon of planning, rather than an escape to mend a broken heart as has often been suggested? Perhaps his absence from public view was due to time spent on research, and study, for many of those monumental sea-disasters for which his father was soon to begin stretching huge canvases? This is not unreasonable to believe for it seems that as early as 1786 with Fishermen at Sea he had already been beckoned by the ominous sea, “to create a lozenge-shaped surface pattern that anticipated the vortex-like compositions of so many of his later paintings.”[xli]
The hiatus theory seems somewhat incongruous, Turner is not known to have taken other non-productive breaks in his life, why then. It is unlikely that an interruption of his greatest love, painting, would have come from his pining over unrequited mortal love. Turner had not been stopped by even worse calamity in his life—there was his mother’s violent mental illness and untimely death in 1804; even this did not interrupt his vast production.

                                                                   Lost love makes not a lover sleep, 
                                                            But wakes the need to scale a mountain peak

Perhaps Turner’s personal mountain was the monumental ‘sea-disaster’ series—that inspiration that ultimately made him a Hero. It should be noted that Turner, in and around 1796-7, sketched a wrecked ship in his Studies for pictures – copies of Wilson sketchbook. This was likely the prototype for the wrecked ship in Shipwreck, the Rescue.

Study of a Dismasted Ship 1797(?) 4 1/2 x 3 5/8 inches
From the ‘Wilson’ sketchbook
 There was also the difficulty Turner seemed to be having in placing the sail on his rescue boat in Shipwreck, the Rescue. This attempt also appears to be synthesized from another sketch from the same book (Finberg xxxvii). Ultimately, these attempts were painted out and have become barely discernable pentimenti  (Marilyn Lavers Report, 1.3 Technique).




According to Gerald Wilkinson the Wilson sketchbook probably spans more than the one-year period, but, “obviously it must go back to 1796 and fills the hiatus which so worried Turner biographers.”[xliii]

With the establishment of an independent workspace at 75 Norton Street, Portland Road, London, in 1801 it appears that our hero’s plan was now fully developed. He reported this location to the Royal Academy as his new address for the following four years which likely indicates Turner’s ambition at precisely that point to tackle the great sea piece and shipwreck series without interruption?




These three images appear relevant to the investigation at hand. They are from Turner's Wilson sketchbook c1797; it is recorded that the inscription on the third one was written some time after the drawing was created, and although there is a reference to Calais Pier, this is likely only anecdotal: "Our situation at Calais Pier." This drawing could certainly be contemporary with Shipwreck, the Rescue of 1801-2, rather than 1804, the year Turner arrived at Calais. Note the signpost above the boat and compare it to the one on the pier of Shipwreck, the Rescue. Even as late as 1844 with his painting of Ostend Turner was using the same device, evidently in order to develop perspective. 


Ostend exh. 1844 During his late years, while his style had changed dramatically, Turner was still using many of his early motifs and stylistic devices. As with his famous black dog on the Mortlake Terrace wall, the signpost is meant to "throw the distance still further back, and enhance the aerial effect of the picture." (Swinburne 1902, 211)


                          Shipwreck, the Rescue,
circa 1802
Here, Forty-two years earlier than Ostend  Turner's painting style presents a much clearer vision. Yet, his subject has remained the same, with desperate survivors alongside a pier.

At the earliest stage of Turner's oil painting career it is evident from Shipwreck, the Rescue, and from the sketches that date from the same period, that he was also experimenting with the orientation of boats in order to present the best vantage for composing his human dramas. With the advent of his more vigorous brushwork in late life, as seen with Ostend, it is clear that those early experiments were still being utilized.

 From the Christie's Provenance of 1904, the first owner of Shipwreck the Rescue was Thomas Griffith: Turner's dealer, friend, and; according to Butlin and Joll, somewhat of a mentor in late life. "Turner had come to rely more on his advice in general and, in this instance [with Ostend ca 1844], about the kind of picture that he should prepare for exhibition at the R.A. Griffith evidently believed that there was a ready market for Turner's sea pictures." (BJ 407) This was likely the same year that Shipwreck, the Rescue was presented to Griffith by Turner. There is an 1844 letter that may serve as a reference to a stormy picture - the term that Turner also used for his famed Shipwreck from the same period. See John Gage's: Collected Correspondence of J.M.W Turner. Clearly there is a connection to be made here between Shipwreck, the Rescue, Ostend and the contemporaneous advice Griffith was sharing with Turner!

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