Turner was preoccupied with the sea throughout his career, filling abouta third of his canvases with marine subjects, painting series of coastal views for publication, and producing thousands of sketches and studies of the sea. A place of daring, achievement and tragedy, the sea was to Turner a stage upon which humanity played out its dramas against the backdrop of an often cruel and indifferent nature. Many of his sea pieces emulate or pay tribute to the Dutch masters of the genre, establishing Turner as the English heir to the maritime tradition. The sea itself, however demanded contemplation, and inspired innovation in Turner’s style and approach. His claim to have been lashed to the mast of a vessel in a storm is probably apocryphal but demonstrates Turner’s assertion of authenticity for his depiction of the sea. His self-image as a Romantic explorer of the waves was expressed in his appearance in later life when local children nicknamed him “Admiral Booth”.
From the mid-1830s Turner made frequent trips to the seaside resort of Margate on the south-east coast of England, an exposed spot offering views of the changeable weather and what Turner described as “the greatest skies in Europe”. This well developed though unfinished work from 1840-1845, found in the artist’s studio after his death, depicts a view out to sea from the shore and may be set at Margate. A brown shape at the bottom right represents a pier against which waves roll and crash. Flotsam is depicted with an unfinished outline of red Saint at the bottom left; the sign, perhaps, of a wreck that we do not see. Through a break in the clouds at the centre of the image a shaft of Light illuminates a quieter spot of water and a white sail. But has the boat escaped the storm, or is it heading into danger? The answer to this question may have been more apparent if Turner had developed this painting further by clarifying the details in the foreground and, crucially, by giving it a title for exhibition at the Royal Academy. As it is, however, the question remains open and we are left to weigh up the comparative strengths of two forces: the sea’s brutality and man’s endurance.
A visitor to Turner’s gallery described his unfinished works as “matchless creations, fresh and dewy, like pearls just set”; acknowledging that, “without reference to the subjects”, which were not always apparent, “the mere colours [were] grateful to the eye.” In the 1960s it was this quality that was most revered by a generation who found in them a kinship with modern abstraction. Today we do not so readily ignore Turner’s subject matter, but can appreciate that it is often the indistinctness of his later works–bemoaned by detractors in his day–that makes them so forceful and compelling.
Documentalist, Tate Britain
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Rough Sea with Wreckage, c. 1840-1845
Oil on canvas, 92,1 x 122,6 cm
Tate Britain, London