This shimmering study of a single mackerel was made by Turner towards the end of his life. Turner made a series of exquisite watercolours of mackerel, at least three of which were owned by John Ruskin, who saw them as profoundly sophisticated manifestations of Turner’s whole approach to the medium:
‘these sketches… are all executed with a view mainly to colour, and, in colour, to its ultimate refinements, as in the grey down of the birds and the subdued iridescences of the fish. There is no execution in watercolour comparable to them for combined rapidity, delicacy, and precision – the artists of the world may be challenged to approach them.’
This study is the most successful and vitriolically handled of Turners mackerel, demonstrating the qualities of speed, delicacy and precision that Ruskin particularly celebrates.
For the last 18 years of his life, Turner lived with Sophia Booth. She was recently widowed when they met in 1833 at Margate, where she kept a lodging house facing the harbour. Whilst in Margate Turner made his studies of mackerel. At least one of the series is inscribed: ‘given to me by Mrs Booth Augt 1855/ Sketched from Fish brought in for dinner/ at Margate of which Fish Mr Turner partook for his dinner.’ Ruskin’s own notes on his drawings by Turner lists two of his mackerel studies: ‘study on his kitchen dresser at Margate, splendid…just a dash for three more. Cook impatient.’ This gives a sense of the informal, personal nature of Turner’s studies.
Unlike the ornithological drawings that Turner made for his patron Walter Fawkes at Farnley, this rapidly executed study of a fish displays all Turner’s sensitivity and virtuosity. Turner sketched out the mackerel in pencil first and then added vivid washes of green and turquoise. This is the only study to depict a single mackerel, a similar sheet from Ruskin’s collection, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford shows three fish side-by-side. As such, it is graphically the boldest of the group, showing one iridescent fish on the page, without any suggestion of what it is sitting on. This suggests that Turner considered the work a pure expression of his fascination with watercolour and amply justifies Ruskin’s praise.