With John Constable and George Stubbs, prime examples of whose work also appear in this landmark sale, Turner is regarded today as one of Britain’s finest artists. Turner’s extraordinary vision and his experimental working methods, stretched traditional boundaries of painting in both oil and watercolour and earned him an international reputation. Both Turner and Constable were widely admired during their own lifetime, not only in Britain, but also on the continent. The present watercolour is one of Turner’s most
accomplished works from the mid to late 1820s. The subject is a very British one, influenced by recent European events, however, it is works like these that have elevated him to the world stage. His ground-breaking techniques and sophisticated handling paved the way for subsequent generations of artists. This drawing was conceived as part of the series of watercolours to be called Picturesque Views of England and Wales, commissioned by the publisher Charles Heath (1785 – 1848) in 1825. The resulting watercolours that Turner produced for this scheme are regarded as amongst his finest works, made at a time when he was at the height of his powers. That the majority of them are now in public collections is testament to the regard in which they are viewed.
Turner worked up the present watercolour, based on several on-the-spot sketches that he made of Yarmouth during his visit to the East Coast in the first half of the 1820s. It is not certain exactly when Turner visited the area. He may have stopped there en route to Farnley Hall, Yorkshire, the home of his great patron, Walter Fawkes, in November 1824. Alternatively he may have visited in 1822, on his way to or from Edinburgh, or even the following year again on his way to or from Yorkshire. The numerous sketches he made
of East Anglia survive in his Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex sketchbook (Tate London, T.B CCI X 24-34). The first three parts of Picturesque Views were published in 1827, each containing four engravings; the series continued to be published at regular intervals, until the scheme finally collapsed due to financial difficulties in 1838. Of the proposed 120 engravings, only 96 were finally made, the
present watercolour was engraved in 1829 (fig. 1).
Turner’s involvement did not end with the supply of the initial watercolours. He was deeply involved in every aspect of producing the engravings, correcting and altering the proofs in order to achieve the best possible result. His fascination with the process encouraged him to train up a group of engravers able to interpret his wishes accurately. As W.G. Rawlinson wrote ‘Probably no other painter before him – unless possibly Rubens – ever so completely controlled the engraving of his own pictures, or ever set himself to educate the engravers who worked for him’. (W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Works of Turner, London, 1908, Vol. 1, p. lxiv.). In the summer of 1829, Charles Heath, in order to encourage public support for his proposed scheme, exhibited 36 watercolours at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and the present watercolour was amongst those on display. The reviews of this exhibition were fulsome in their praise
of the artist’s ability; The Athenaeum and Literary Chronicle, reviewed the exhibition twice, on 3 and 10 June, initially describing the drawings as ‘splendid specimens of taste and execution, and, collected and hung together as they are here, produce an effect beyond expectation brilliant and beautiful’ (3 June, 1829, no. 84, p. 381). A week later the reviewer continued, ‘we have returned to the view of
this brilliant and elegant exhibition with fresh gratification and renewed admiration of Mr Turner’s taste and powers’ (10 June 1829, no. 89, p. 363). The 1833 exhibition by Moon, Boys and Graves, went a step further in promoting the scheme (they had bought into the project in 1831) and showed 66 of Turner’s watercolours.
There is a smaller watercolour of Yarmouth Sands, in which the artist has chosen to depict Nelson’s column, from a closer viewpoint on the beach. This smaller work was formerly in the collection of John Ruskin and was given by him to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (fig. 2). In this larger, more dramatic work, Turner decided to depict the scene from above, which not only allowed him to record the town, the monument, the beach and its surroundings but by elevating the view and creating a dramatic contrast between the foreground and the drop to the beach below, the sense of theatre and majesty is intensified.
Nelson’s Column, the Britannia Monument or The Norfolk Column as it is also known, was designed by William Wilkins and was originally conceived during the Naval hero’s lifetime and intended to mark Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile, 1798. However, the project was to be funded by public donation and due to its scale and cost, it took a number of years to raise the required funds,
during which time Nelson was killed and the purpose of the monument was revised to commemorate his life. Over 43 metres high, it was begun in August 1817 and completed two years later. It is smaller than the other Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, London, but the latter was not begun for another 24 years. It comprises a Doric column, around the base of which are engraved a list of Nelson’s victories. The column is topped by six caryatids supporting a globe on which stands Britannia, holding an olive branch in
one hand and a trident in the other and looking towards Burnham Thorpe, Nelson’s birthplace. When it was originally constructed it dominated its surroundings on the beach at South Denes, although due to industrialisation, it no longer does so. The area around the monument has been developed, yet the monument is still visible above many of the buildings.
Yarmouth was an important coastal town and port, whose importance as William Daniell noted in his celebrated Voyage Round Great Britain...between 1813 and 1823, was considerably increased during the Napoleonic Wars, ‘by its becoming a grand station for part of the British navy, the roads opposite the town offering a safe anchorage for a numerous fleet’. Yarmouth had long been a key haven
for the Royal Navy, as well as other commercial vessels looking to take on supplies. Daniell described the bustle and reputation of the busy port: ‘besides fishing smacks, upwards of three hundred vessels belong to the port of Yarmouth; and its mariners are considered among the most able and expert navigators in the kingdom’. As Eric Shanes discusses in his following essay, the present watercolour represents far more than topography. It is imbued with patriotic symbolism; the gathering storm clouds, hint at the war with France, whilst the monument itself serves as a reminder of Britain’s naval supremacy. Other artists of the period, were also inspired
by Yarmouth’s importance during the Napoleonic Wars, amongst them John Sell Cotman, who lived in Great Yarmouth between 1812 and 1823. Cotman’s painting Dutch Boats off Yarmouth, Prizes during the War (Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery fig. 3), executed in 1823, is similarly filled with patriotic spirit. Cotman has depicted the Column bathed in golden light, separating the Dutch
boats on the left (captured as prizes of war at the Battle of Camperdown) and the victorious British to the right.
At the same time as Turner was beginning to work on the Picturesque Views series, Constable’s View on the Stour, The Hay Wain and a small oil of Yarmouth Jetty, were exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1824, where they caused a sensation. Delacroix amended his own work, Massacre at Chios (Louvre, Paris) in direct response to Constable’s, feeling that his looked ‘grey’ and forced. Furthermore Constable was awarded a gold medal by Charles X and the Louvre tried unsuccessfully to purchase The Hay Wain (they ended up buying Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios). Turner had already exhibited at the Royal Academy monumental paintings to critical acclaim and had been made an Academician in 1802, an honour conferred on Constable 27 years later. The two men would have been very aware of what the other was doing and the desire to achieve greater success would have fuelled them to scale greater and more experimental heights.
As Ian Warrell has noted, by the early 1820s Turner had begun to take his art in new directions, heralding a decade of experimentation and transition. He began to employ a brighter, more powerful range of colours, than he had previously used. Increasingly he would prepare his compositions by producing batches of studies, or ‘colour beginnings’, where he set out the structure of the design in pure washes of colour before then working up his finished watercolours. (Ian Warrell (ed.) J. M. W. Turner, London, 2007, p. 101). This technique allowed that greater freedom of expression and composition which informed Turner’s more highly finished works of the 1820s and 30s, such as the present watercolour, as well as his later, more abstract works, as shown by a view of Yarmouth Sands (Yale Center for British Art, fig. 5), executed circa 1840.
J.M.W. Turner’s Great Yarmouth by Eric Shanes
Yarmouth is one of the most vivacious images in the England and Wales series. Like a number of works made for the project, it contains a dramatic narrative. This takes its cue from the fact that in the distance can be seen the 144 foot-high Nelson Monument begun in 1817 to commemorate both Nelson and his victories. Just offshore may be seen the North Sea squadron of the Royal Navy at anchor, Yarmouth being its home port. It is accompanied by numerous supply vessels and Yarmouth trawlers.
In the foreground a washerwoman has recently laid out her washing and fish to dry in the sun when presumably just a light breeze was blowing. Suddenly, however, a violent gust of wind has picked up her bonnet, washing basket and items of wet clothing and is flinging them through the air. Clearly this reversal has been caused by the storm that is approaching in the distance. In the context of an image whose focal point is a military monument, the immediate change from a state of calm to one of storm suggests a larger alteration from a state of peace to a state of war, with the Nelson monument and adjacent fleet perhaps hinting at naval readiness to protect England from threat. The transformation is intensified by the sea in the bottom right-hand corner where the tide is clearly on the turn.
Such an interpretation receives support from another watercolour in the ‘England and Wales’ series, made at around the same time, and possibly even in the same work session. This is Dock Yard, Devonport, Ships being paid off (Fogg Art Museum, Massachusetts, fig. 6) to quote Turner’s own title for the work.
As its title makes clear, Dock Yard, Devonport, Ships being paid off deals with the return of peace, for naval crews were only paid off at the end of a war. Its sky suggests that a conflict has just passed, for in the distance dark storm-clouds are rolling away to reveal a golden, peaceful sky beyond. Naturally, this statement of the coming of peace aids the reading of Yarmouth as a statement about the coming of war. Such complementary dramatic narratives indicate that the two watercolours were intended to link with one another.
As befits a scene in which a strong wind is blowing off the sea, the colour temperature of Yarmouth tends to the cool end of the spectrum, with Turner having achieved a perfect balance between the dominant blue-greys and yellows whose paleness prevents them from overwhelming the image. The burnt siennas used for the heights at the lower-left help maintain this balance. The image is filled with superb felicities of detailing, observation and pictorial structure, such as the two herrings resting on the ground at the lower left to remind us of Yarmouth’s principal peacetime industry; the rhythm of the breaking waves at the lower-right; the tiny dogs running across the sands just beyond their reach; the numerous shanks of anchors resting on the pier at Gorleston nearby; the forest of masts a little further off; the many seagulls in the distance that were created simply by scratching away the top surface of the paper; the enormously subtle mist that runs down the shadowed sides of the buildings that lead the eye to the naval hospital and St Nicholas’s church in the distance; the town of Yarmouth further off; the partial obscuring of the sea horizon by the rain descending from the stormclouds; and the endlessly inventive array of shallow curves and counter-curves that structure the entire image.