Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851)

A storm at sea, Fingal's cave

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851)
A storm at sea, Fingal's cave
blue, grey and magenta wash on paper
7 x 11 in. (18.4 x 29.3 cm.)
Arthur, 1st Earl Balfour (1848-1930) and by descent until 1986.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 4 June 2008, lot 27.
London, W/S Fine Art, Summer 2009, no. 34.

Brought to you by

Harriet West
Harriet West

Check the condition report or get in touch for additional information about this

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

The present watercolour appears to be the first idea or colour study for Turner's major oil Staffa, Fingal's Cave (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, see M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised edition 1984, no. 347, pp. 198-99, pl. 350, in colour). The oil was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832, following Turner's visit to Staffa in August 1831. Like the present study, the oil features an arching storm cloud above a dark and turbulent sea. In the oil a steamer on the right throws up a further arch of smoke; in the present watercolour two narrow verticals suggestive of masts or funnels can be seen jutting above the waves on the left. Although the artist's Staffa Sketchbook (TB CCLXXIII) includes numerous drawings of the coast and the cave itself, it does not include any compositional studies of the sea and sky as they are portrayed in the painting, the Staffa Sketchbook is discussed in D. Wallace-Hadrill and J. Carolan, 'Turner in Argyll in 1831: Inveraray to Oban', Turner Studies, XI, no 1, pp. 20-29.

Turner went on a day trip to Staffa to make drawings to illustrate Walter Scott's poem Lord of the Isles; the oil painting was a further result of the visit. Scott's passage describing the cave, which Turner appended to his oil when it was exhibited, reads,

- nor of a theme less solemn tells
That mighty surge that ebbs and swells,
And still, between each awful pause,
From the high vault an answer draws.

Jan Piggott considers Turner's Fingal's Cave vignette as 'perhaps the masterpiece of the series', referring to Turner's series of illustrations for Robert Cadell's edition of Scott's Poetical Works published in 1833-34 (see Piggott, Turner's Vignettes, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1993, p. 56).

From what is known of his visit to Staffa it is clear that, apart from the extraordinary geological formation of the cave, what made the deepest impression on the artist was the storm that he, and other travellers on the steamer Maid of Morven, encountered. Over a decade after the event Turner wrote to James Lenox, who had purchased the painting, explaining the circumstances: 'We left the Sound of Mull, in the Maid of Morven, to visit Staffa, and reach Iona in due time; but a strong wind and head of sea prevented us making Staffa until too late to go on to Iona.' He then described the party's disembarkation on a rock near to the cave, where they were given an hour, before being collected. Once back on board, 'the Captain declared it doubtful about Iona. Such a rainy and bad-looking night coming on.' A vote was held, and the majority agreed with the Captain that they should not try to proceed, but return to port at Tobermory. As they left, 'The sun getting towards the horizon, burst through the rain-cloud, angry, and for wind; and so it proved, for we were driven for shelter into Loch Ulver, and did not get back to Tober Moray before midnight' (Ed. John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, 1980, no. 288, pp. 209-10).

Peter Bower has suggested a possible link between the present watercolour and two colour beginnings in the Turner Bequest (TB CCLXIII 245 and TB CCLXIII 312) dating from between 1820 and 1830. He has pointed out that the Turner Bequest drawings are on similar paper to that used for the present study, and of a similar size. Those two watercolours, which are of heavy clouds over sea, are, however, very different in colour. They are also narrower in width and show no sign of the blue tear line and therefore appear unlikely to be from the same large sheet. The present watercolour appears not to be from a sketchbook. It may be from an Imperial sheet (22 x 30 inches) divided into eight, although if this is the case the paper was very roughly torn, as the width is well over 11 inches. Whoever tore the sheet first marked it, or partially marked it, with ruled lines in blue: one such line can be seen along the bottom edge. Colour beginnings from the 1820s on odd or irregular-sized sheets are known. Two seascape studies are on one sheet (CCLXIII 15) measuring 17 x 12 inches (43.1 x 30.5 cm); a single Storm at Sea (CCLXIII 215) measures 8 1/8 x 11 7/8 inches (20.5 x 30.1 cm). The first of these sheets is watermarked 1825, the second 1819 (Eric Shanes, Turner's Watercolour Explorations 1810-1842, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1997, p. 101).

Colour studies such as the present drawing are only occasionally found outside the Turner Bequest. The first recorded owner of the watercolour, the philosopher-politician Arthur James, First Earl Balfour (1848-1930) was a Scot, born and brought up until the age of ten at Whittingehame House, the Balfour family seat in East Lothian. Whittingehame remained his country residence. He was first elected to Parliament in 1874 and, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Lord Salisbury, rose to become Prime Minister, holding that office from 1902 until 1905. Lord Balfour purchased a Turner oil, The Pass of St Gothard (now Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), from Agnew's in 1910, but it is not known where or how he acquired the present watercolour.

Related Articles

View all
Virtual tour: Classic Week con auction at Christies
What to look for on the back o auction at Christies
Guilt free: 10 Old Master work auction at Christies

More from Andrew Wyld: Connoisseur Dealer

View All
View All