An inscription on an old label on the reverse of the backboard reads 'Head of fisherwoman as seen by/J.M.W. Turner R.A. on a hot day looking/from his window at Margate, where He was staying with Mrs Booth and/painted by him for her amusement and given to me'. Sophia Booth, with whom Turner stayed in Margate from about 1829 onwards, was later installed as his companion in his second, Thames-side home in Chelsea. The present drawing is one of a group of similar works said to have been given by Turner to Mrs Booth, three of which were subsequently in the Nettlefold Collection (though not listed in published catalogues of the collection). A similar but larger bodycolor study of a head, also done on buff paper, is currently in a Private Collection (Wilton, op. cit., no. 928, illustrated). The works in Mrs Booth's possession at her death passed into the collection of her son by her first marriage, John Pound. Pound's sale at Christie's on 24 March 1865 included a large number of Turners, although the present work was not among them.
The label on this backboard gives one interpretation of these unusual works, while other commentators have sometimes associated them with Turner's having seen a drowned girl, either in the Thames or at Margate. It seems most likely however that the present watercolor belongs to a group of drawings which have erotic connotations. The presence of such works in the Turner Bequest, which included all material left in Turner's studio at his death, is said to have shocked Ruskin. Having championed Turner's art in Modern Painters, Ruskin felt that the artist's moral life should be as elevated and distinguished as his painting, and it has been widely assumed that Ruskin presided over a bonfire of these disturbing erotic sketches in December 1858, to purify the vision of Turner that would be bequeathed to future generations.
However, recent research has queried the extent of this destruction, since a large number of erotic works remain in the Turner Bequest: listed and catalogued in an article by Ian Warrell, they include many works of a more explicit nature than the present drawing, whose sensual appeal lies predominantly in its suggestive quality. Warrell argues that Ruskin encouraged the belief that some of the more obscene works had been destroyed, possibly in the hope of checking potentially prurient interest in Turner's art. The myth of the bonfire was later propagated by the artistic establishment at the time when Ruskin himself began to fall from grace, in the late 1860s. While Ruskin would have hoped to be seen as a purifier, he instead came to be seen as the agent of a prudish act of censorship (I. Warrell, 'A checklist of erotic sketches in the Turner Bequest', British Art Journal, IV, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 18-46).
Some of Turner's erotic works are believed to have been drawn in brothels which he visited during his European tours, and it was thought by some of his contemporaries that he frequented disreputable sailors' haunts in Wapping. However, works such as the present drawing, and a similarly loose study of a reclining woman (fig. 1; TB CCCXLI) have a far more intimate quality. The woman in the present drawing, whose head and shoulders fill the paper, and whose arms seem to be crooked over her head, may have been one of Turner's mistresses; perhaps, given the link with Mrs Booth, she was the unwitting model. Since few drawings of this nature survive outside the Turner Bequest, this watercolor offers collectors a rare and intriguing insight into Turner's private life.
The present drawing is on a buff wove watercolor drawing paper, made by George Steart.
We are grateful to Peter Bower, Ian Warrell and Andrew Wilton for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.