The full title of the present watercolour is An April shower, View from Binsey Ferry, near Oxford, looking towards Port Meadow and Godstow. It was unsold in 1842, when it was exhibited at the Society of Painter in Water-colours. It was probably the work which appeared in the artist's studio sale as A river-scene, with a rainbow (Christie's, London, 9 March 1963, lot 149, £2, 15 s.). Though low, this price is not atypical of those realised in the sale, which reflect how the poetic delicacy of Turner's work was unsuited for the trends of the time.
This is one of the artist's boldest exhibition pieces. Turner was a pioneer in his furthering of the capacities of his favoured medium. Ambitious in scale, and almost transcending their period in the simplicity and strength of their conception, these watercolours truly justified the aims of the Society of Painters in Water-colours. Set up in 1805, this body was dedicated to the promotion of watercolour - an inaugural stage to the movement that was to gain momentum and see watercolour realise its status as England's 'national medium'.
Along with fellow Society founders Cotman, Cox and de Wint, Turner forsook the Royal Academy in favour of exhibiting as a group united by their aims. Inspired by J.M.W. Turner's picturesque views of 1790s, landscape was their genre of choice. Topographical subjects were invested with atmosphere and mood: the effects of the temporal upon the static, of feeling upon visual record.
William Turner's first important exhibit was Wychwood Forest (1809). In his introduction to William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862) (Oxford, 1985) Timothy Wilcox comments on the consistency of the artist's vision:
'[Turner]...is, in fact, an example, very rare among nineteenth-century watercolourists, of a man who retained his youthful ardour and sense of purpose throughout his career. The range of his subject-matter is vast, but always displays a single-minded dedication to landscape, and to the creation of imposing, carefully articulated artistic statements.'
The artist executed many Oxford subjects during the 1840s. By now he was combining his work as a fine artist with his duties as a drawing master. Many of these other examples (see op.cit. pp. 69-73), also show small figures in a wide landscape. This is exceptional however, for its brilliant colour and for the particular happy charm it possesses.
A sky study, Stratus Clouds, Evening (1848), also in very bright hues, was sold in the Collection of Monsieur and Madame Gérald Bauer; Christie's, London, 22 January 2003, lot 19, £17,600)