This study shows a prospect of Maidstone seen across the River Medway. In describing a sketchbook Turner used on a Dutch tour in 1825, Andrew Wilton has pointed out that 'to turn the pages... is to tread the streets... the lines of houses, the squares and bridges, opening up to the view one after another and admitting glimpsed perspectives of turnings to right and left.' That sense of sequential views is particularly apparent in the three views of Maidstone from the Canterbury, Rochester and Maidstone sketchbook included in this exhibition. Turning the pages, Turner gradually shifted his view, moving further to the north along the river and in so doing gradually moving closer to the town itself. The familiar outline of All Souls church becomes more prominent and Turner's abbreviated lines capture more of the complex architecture of the western tower. In this view Turner has eliminated the Bishop's Palace, which sits too far to the south. In this way, we gain a fascinating insight into Turner's ability to extract both topographical and architectural detail of a fleeting view and record it rapidly on the page in such a way as to present a complete composition. A fourth view of Maidstone made closer to the town and showing All Souls almost parallel to the viewer which is possibly the first drawing in Turner’s sequence survives in a private collection.
FURTHER NOTES ON THE SKETCHBOOK
The drawings discussed here - nine of views in Kent and one of Andernach on the Rhine - are the last group of sheets from an album compiled by the nineteenth-century collector and patron, Laurence W. Hodson. Hodson had acquired 'two original sketch books of J.M.W. Turner' from the engraver Daniel John Pound. Pound had inherited some of Turner's late sketchbooks and late paintings from his mother, Caroline Sophie Booth, who claimed the contents of the Chelsea house she shared with Turner from 1846. The provenance is therefore unusually complete. Hodson's album originally consisted of 44 sheets extracted from two sketchbooks and thirteen loose drawings. The loose, torn-down sheets, were on blue paper and of coastal subjects, internal evidence suggests that Hodson numbered these I to XIII in the album. The first set of sketchbook pages consisted of eleven Swiss and German views and were numbered XIV - XXVIII, they included some remarkably bold and grandly worked watercolours including a monochrome view of Burg Eltz. The second was a group of sixteen sketchbook drawings of subjects in Kent, including views of Canterbury, Rochester and Maidstone, each around 8 ¾ by 11 inches, numbered XXIX-XLIV. Thanks to a note inscribed by Hodson himself, we know the drawings were mounted in July 1884 and remained together until 1978.
The first of our drawings, inscribed by Turner 'Andernache', formed part of the group of eleven sheets from the Swiss and German sketchbook. Probably made in 1841 or 1842, it shows the distinctive profile of the walled town of Andernach on the Rhine. Turner has rotated the sketchbook to draw the profile of the town across the page giving emphasis to its height. Other pages from the sketchbook show the creative ways he used his sketchbooks whilst travelling. On a drawing of Hammerstein, Turner turned the book upside down to use the empty sheet to add a sketch of Andernach. Apart from Burg Eltz and Andernach, the other subjects depicted in the sketchbook were in the Aare (or Ahr) valley, Switzerland and the sheets are widely dispersed.
The other nine drawings come from the second of Hodson's sketchbooks and are all identifiable as landscapes in Kent. All but one of the second group remain untrimmed. This allows us to say for certain that the sheets were originally bound together as a sketchbook as the original binding holes are visible on the left-hand margin of each sheet. There are no drawings on the verso of the sheets, Turner rapidly recorded landscapes on the recto of each page as he travelled, a practice, which is typical of the intact sketchbooks. A page from the same group, now in a private collection is watermarked J. Whatman, Turkey Mill 1811. We have therefore christened this the Kent-Whatman sketchbook. The drawings represent Turner's last phase of drawing, made as an instinctive response to familiar landscapes. As Wilton has observed: 'Turner's system of notation grew more effective, more economical of space. It was a primary asset that the shorthand could be adapted for use on a small scale. His pairing away of superfluities, his establishment of a clear, direct use of line, justified itself in the often tiny notebooks that he put in his pockets on his journeys across England and the Continent. The usual pattern all his life was to make a single drawing on each page, sometimes using the verso as well as the recto, but often leaving the verso blank. In sketchbooks treated thus we are very conscious of the possibility that each image might achieve metamorphosis into a finished work. The edge of the page seems automatically to suggest a frame, and the relations of the parts of the subject are already disposed as if in a considered composition.'
The drawings document a trip through Kent. Throughout the 1840s Turner spent time on the Kent coast, first at Margate and from 1846 in a large house on the sea at Deal. During the 1840s the South Eastern Railway was extended reaching Margate in 1844, offering rapid access to the Kent coast. Using the evidence of the drawings we can show that on this particular journey, made at some point in the mid to late 1840s, Turner stopped in Rochester, Maidstone and Canterbury. The first two views, of Rochester, show the Northwest prospect of the city, looking across the River Medway towards the distinctive profile of the castle and cathedral spire. Three drawings show views of Maidstone, again with the Medway in the foreground. Three drawings show different views in Canterbury and there is a final sheet that so far, remains unidentified. The drawings are all rapidly executed, the complex elements of the landscapes communicated in an almost continuous, animated line. The relatively large size of the sheets - 8 ¾ x 11 inches - allowed Turner to build expansive compositions showing wide prospects of each town. In several of the sheets he adds human interest, noting distinctive river traffic and figures. Throughout, Turner has focused on the principal monuments of each city recording them rapidly but with remarkable fidelity. This was precisely the formula Turner adopted when planning finished watercolours and it may be that Turner was collating material for a sequence of views of Kent.
Turner’s lifelong affinity with the county of Kent meant than in this sketchbook he was retracing a sequence of views that were hugely familiar to him. Turner’s first oil painting had been a view of Rochester with fisherman drawing boats ashore in a gale made in 1793, when he was just eighteen. Later in the same decade Turner had made highly detailed watercolours of the architecture of Canterbury Cathedral which he exhibited at the Royal Academy and his 1820 Medway sketchbook, now in the Turner Bequest at the Tate, shows Turner surveying the river and its traffic. This has led Ian Warrell to perceptively note of the present sketchbook: ‘in this sequence Turner revisited subjects he had first seen as a boy and there is a sense of him looking back across the years to connect with his younger self.’
This exhibition contains 9 sheets from the Kent sketchbook. The remaining seven drawings from the same source in the Hodson album are split between two distinguished private collections, making this the last substantial sequence of pages from a Turner sketchbook available on the market. Appropriately enough, in Ian Warrell’s recent book Turner’s Sketchbooks the ‘Canterbury, Rochester and Maidstone sketchbook’ appears as the last entry.