We are excited to announce a new online exhibition devoted to pages from one JMW Turner's last sketchbooks. The exhibition includes ten sheets from two sketchbooks that were disassembled and pasted into an album in 1884, they have remained together ever since. As such, they represent perhaps the last opportunity to acquire multiple sheets from a single sketchbook by Turner. Left by Turner to his Margate landlady and companion, Caroline Sophia Booth, they constitute the remains of two of Turner's last sketchbooks, they are therefore some of the very few sketchbook drawings that did not pass with the contents of his studio into the Turner Bequest. This exhibition reconstructs one of these sketchbooks, named by Ian Warrell the ‘Canterbury, Rochester and Maidstone sketchbook.’ The title of our show is therefore apposite, as these drawings come from one of Turner’s last sketchbooks and represent one of the last concentrations of sketchbook pages not in a public collection. The drawings themselves may be modest - almost fragmentary at times - but they show Turner at the height of his powers, rapidly capturing the familiar landscape of Kent and communicating these views without the use of watercolour. As such, these ten sheets offer remarkable insights into Turner's working practices, his vision and the role drawing occupied in his own art. Whilst scholars have long known the drawings, they have not previously been seriously discussed - the subjects of several of the sheets are identified here for the first time - we therefore hope that this exhibition will shed some new light on late Turner and his use of drawing. Read on for a more detailed discussion of the pages and their context.
We are so familiar with chromatic Turner - his watercolours and oils - we are far less familiar with the power of his drawings. This is in part the result of taste and part as a result of historical accident; Turner desired that his works should remain together forming a single collection. This has meant that, unlike Turner's contemporary, John Constable, very few of his preparatory sketches, particularly in graphite, exist outside the Turner Bequest and even fewer have appeared on the open market.
At the heart of the Turner Bequest is a group of 282 bound sketchbooks. Only a handful of Turner's sketchbooks exist elsewhere, of which the two discussed here are perhaps the least familiar. Describing ‘upwards of nineteen thousand pieces of paper drawn upon by Turner in one way or another’ that he found in tin boxes at the National Gallery following the accession of the Bequest, John Ruskin observed that, ‘About half, or rather more, of the entire number consisted of pencil sketches in flat, oblong pocket-books, dropping to pieces’. The sketchbooks show that Turner used them for sketching at every point in his career. They vary greatly in format and materials and in the way he used them. He drew in them in pencil, chalks or ink, painted in them in watercolour and other media, and wrote in them, indoors and out. Often, he jotted first impressions, but he also made careful studies of compositions and pictures, real, imagined or by other artists. In their substance and content, the sketchbooks reflect advances in artists’ materials and changes in his own working practice; but also, a consistent tendency to work in different ways simultaneously, frequently on a single tour or towards the same project.
As Andrew Wilton has observed: '[t]he overriding impression given by the sketchbooks is that Turner used them as an extension of himself, a means of rendering in physical terms what his eye and mind apprehended in an uninterrupted flow of impressions.' It appears that whilst Turner was travelling, either on one of his Continental tours, or in Britain, he drew more or less continuously, with a fluency that struck one observer as like: 'writing rather than drawing'. The same friend, Cyrus Redding, also remarked on Turner’s tenacity of purpose: he went on making his sketches regardless of external conditions.
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.