Sunset or sunrise over the south coast of England

In later life Turner apparently told the art critic John Ruskin that the skies above the Isle of Thanet, at the eastern edge of Kent, were the finest he had seen in Europe. His close acquaintance with this region was unknown to most of his contemporaries until after his death, when it emerged that he had been a regular visitor to Margate since the late 1820s. From there he was able to explore the coast round to Ramsgate, Deal, Dover and Folkestone. But given what is now known about the full extent of Turner's travels across Europe, the claims he made for the exceptional natural splendor of this part of Kent seem at first somewhat remarkable.

Nevertheless, his case is greatly strengthened by the extraordinary works he produced in watercolor, and in oil, which capture the essence of stunning atmospheric effects he had witnessed -- or imagined -- during his visits. Almost none of this material was exhibited in Turner's lifetime, and so for the most part it remained in the artist's own collection, thereafter becoming part of the Turner Bequest, now housed at Tate Britain, London.

Some works, however, never became national property. The source for many of the late color studies of sea and sky outside the Tate Collection seems to have been Turner's Margate landlady and companion, Sophia Caroline Booth (1798/9-1875). Turner worked from the windows of her lodging-house by the harbor, and appears to have left there oil sketches and watercolors in various stages of completion. The early history of the present work is not known, but it is likely that it too originally emerged from Mrs. Booth, or from her son Daniel John Booth, whom Turner apparently took under his wing and encouraged in his ambitions to become an engraver. Sales of pictures belonging to them took place at Christie's in 1865 and 1909.

Attempting to date works like the present drawing precisely is invariably very difficult, because Turner's concentration on transitory effect did not always run in tandem with a concern to provide even the most basic indication of topography or incident. Such details might have sometimes helped to link the watercolors to a particular location, and then to a documented tour. But because Turner produced works of this kind, in eastern Kent, over such a long period, it is usual to introduce a certain vagueness when dating them.

For this work, however, it is possible to link the paper on which it is painted, in conjunction with its distinctive use of chalk over watercolor, to the series of colour studies Turner made in his Whalers sketchbook (TB CCCLIII). This 'roll' sketchbook is typical of the large format notebooks Turner habitually used in the 1840s, generally made up of around 24 pages: in this case the book has been disbound to allow individual sheets to be displayed. The Whalers book is assumed to date from around 1844-5. By 1845 Turner had begun to exhibit his remarkable paintings depicting the activities of the South Seas whaling fleet, with an eye on the business interests of a relatively new patron, Elhanan Bicknell (1788-1861), whose fortune came from extracting spermaceti for a range of commercial uses. Bicknell was, indeed, impressed by the paintings, initially acquiring one of them until he detected Turner's unconventional use of watercolor on its surface (Whalers, 1845; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), whereupon it was returned to the artist.

Comparisons between the present Seascape and the sheets of the Whalers sketchbook are hindered somewhat because it, along with many other works on paper in the Turner Bequest, was submerged when the Thames flooded the lower galleries at Millbank in 1928. Even so, it is possible to find close similarities between the expansive seascapes Turner created there in simple washes of blue and grey, with details or shading added in chalk. The most telling relationship can be found in the sketch on f. 4, At Sea (Tate, D35243), where the tones used to evoke the horizon are very similar, though no chalk is present on this sheet. A comparable use of this latter material can be seen in the Sea Piece on f. 20, the inside back cover (Tate, D35259), where Turner adapts his draughtsmanship to give both generalized effect, as well as lightly indicated outlines.

There are other loose sheets outside the Turner Bequest which might also be connected with this book, if only because of their subject-matter (see A. Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg, 1979, p. 469, nos. 1411-13).

We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.

Possibly Francis Stevenson, 1898.

With The Fine Art Society, London, 1898.

With Agnew's, London, 1898.

The Schuster Collection until 1930s/40s.

Horton-Fawkes Family; Christie's, London, 17 November 1987, lot 188.

Anonymous sale; Christie's, Sydney, 15 August 1994, lot 240, where purchased by the present owner.

About Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallor William Turner was one of the leading British artists of his time, who over the six decades of his career changed the public regard for landscape and watercolor painting. Though he received little formal education, Turner was a prodigiously talented child. He eventually enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art Schools and exhibited his first watercolor there at the age of 15. He also studied in the studio of the architectural draftsman and topographer Thomas Malton. Turner eventually became known as a widely regarded as topographical watercolorist, though he was equally adept in oil and experimented widely with techniques. He received the most acclaim for his depictions of sublime storms and atmospheric, narrative landscapes. Many of his works referenced literature, mythology, and history.

British, 1775-1851, London, United Kingdom, based in London, United Kingdom

Solo Shows on Artsy

2016
J.M.W. Turner, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis
2015
J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, de Young Museum, San Francisco
2015
J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Group Shows on Artsy

2016
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2016
2014
Jeremy Deller: English Magic, Turner Contemporary, Margate