J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

Project Overview

J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings, Watercolours aims to provide a comprehensive revision and updating of A.J. Finberg’s A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest (London 1909). At the same time, it incorporates additional works on paper by Turner that have been acquired by Tate through purchase or gift to supplement the Bequest itself with works, such as finished watercolours, that were under-represented in what was, at the artist’s death, primarily a studio repository. It draws on more than a century of scholarship and research and addresses this extraordinary collection and its critical legacy in detail. Work on the project is ongoing, and new entries and supporting texts will be added as they are completed.
Much has been written on the history and treatment of the Turner Bequest, which was the focus of Finberg’s catalogue.1 The summary given here confines itself mainly to works on paper in the Bequest, the core of this project, and to past curating and cataloguing that provides its historical context.
‘The Turner Bequest’ is the name given to the original works by Turner that came to the nation from his estate after the settlement of his will in 1856.2 It is a misleading name in so far as the majority of the works it denotes (both paintings and drawings) did not form part of his explicit Bequest. Turner’s will passed through several modifications but his intention was essentially that the finished oil paintings remaining in his possession – about 100 – should be preserved at the National Gallery and exhibited in a designated ‘Turner’s Gallery’. Although at one point he considered leaving works on paper as well, they did not figure in the final version of the will, which laid emphasis on the deployment of the large fortune, in the region of £140,000, which he had built up by careful investments. It was to be used primarily to establish almshouses for indigent male English landscape painters. These were never built but Turner had planned to site them at Twickenham, where he had himself lived in earlier decades.
After Turner died in December 1851, his relations contested the will, claiming that he had been of unsound mind. In 1856, following prolonged negotiations in the Court of Chancery, a compromise was reached whereby the financial assets of his estate were divided among the family (whom Turner had excluded altogether as legatees), while works of art ‘by his hand’ in his house at Queen Anne Street became the property of the nation in the care of the National Gallery. The gallery’s Trustees took legal possession on 25 September 1856 but transfers of vulnerable works for safe-keeping had begun in the summer of 1854, at the request of Turner’s executors. Their first full schedule including works on paper was made on 21 June that year.3 In a recent estimate by Ian Warrell, they numbered ‘something like 19,828’ including works by other artists mistakenly lumped in with Turner’s.4 Following the Chancery ruling, a similar schedule was compiled in March 1856. A third, by Sir Charles Eastlake, the first Director (from 1855) of the National Gallery, President of the Royal Academy and erstwhile friend of Turner, and John Prescott Knight, the Academy’s Secretary and one of Turner’s executors, was made in October and November that year. Excluding prints as not generally autograph (though it is now recognised that Turner made various etchings and mezzotints himself) but again including works now known to be by other hands, it cited a total of 19,049 ‘Drawings and sketches in colour and in pencil, including about 300 coloured drawings’.
As has long been recognised, and most recently discussed by Warrell, the numbers formerly given for works in the collection did not always tally. Other early totals vary from 19,3315 to 19,7236 while Finberg’s Inventory listed 19,743 sketches and drawings and an overall total including sketchbooks of 20,098 items. Today, nearly 30,000 are recorded by Tate accession numbers. A number of factors may be adduced for these disparities. Early figures, at least in the mid-1850s, suggest that the contents of the collection were broadly stable. There may have been differences depending whether sheets of paper or drawings were counted, just as Tate’s accessioning system numbers both sides of the same sheet and on occasion, even different drawings on the same side if it happens to be folded. (If begun afresh today, or in tandem with the progress of this catalogue, a different method would surely be adopted). The numerous sketchbooks, whether largely intact or partly broken up, and ‘pocket note-books’ originally found in various states of collapse suggest further potential for confusion although again the tallies of 1854 and 1856 seem fairly reliable (or can be reconstructed) when compared to present contents. However, eleven sketchbooks were not counted in these early inventories while two groups of diagrams that Turner made for his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy were added belatedly having been found in Turner’s house. Up to a point, these omissions must have been accidental. But five of the stray sketchbooks contain ‘material of an erotic nature’ which the executors set aside deliberately, at an early stage.
John Ruskin 29 June 1863
John Ruskin 29 June 1863
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Faced with the daunting administrative challenge of such a vast acquisition, the National Gallery had little option but to tackle it piecemeal. Its first concern was to display a selection of works on paper, along with the paintings on show at Marlborough House. A small committee comprising Eastlake, one of his Trustees, William Russell, and the Keeper, Ralph Wornum along with three more Turner executors, H.A.J. Munro of Novar and the artists Clarkson Stanfield and David Roberts, prepared an initial choice of 102 works which went on display at the end of January 1857. Eastlake soon envisaged a larger survey but the catalyst for a more thorough organisation of the collection came from John Ruskin, long a passionate advocate of Turner’s work and, originally, another of his executors (fig.1). In a letter to The Times dated 28 October he offered to sort and arrange all Turner’s drawings and sketches in the Bequest, effectively as an honorary curator. Having previously resigned as an executor, Ruskin might have been thought ineligible and his relations with Eastlake were sour. His offer drew no immediate response. However, following a prompt to Eastlake from Russell, a Times editorial on 13 November and an appeal from Ruskin to the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Ruskin was invited to organise the collection and present proposals for its display. During the following winter, he set about the great task of going through the entire collection, opening boxes, unpacking parcels, cleaning and matting drawings, tying loose sheets into new bundles, looking through all the sketchbooks and pocket-books, and labelling each book or bundle with a note of its contents and an estimate of its aesthetic value. He had some assistance from Wornum but essentially he was on his own, able to operate with a cavalier independence unimaginable in a national institution today.
This gave his project a flair and heroic energy surely unique in the history of curating but also stored up problems for the future – for subsequent curators and for Ruskin himself. Having known Turner and, as he believed, gained insights into his mind and methods, he felt he had a mission to interpret him and was empowered by a sense of ownership of the man if not, literally or legally, of his works. However elucidated in his writings in the meantime, above all in the successive volumes of his great polemical book Modern Painters, he began with a view of Turner’s work mainly formed by the earlier pictures, watercolours and prints he had seen as a young enthusiast and was unprepared for everything he found in the Bequest. He wanted to show the best of Turner, as moralist, naturalist and fellow-traveller who anticipated and inspired his own ‘scenic knowledge’. His first selection and commentary on what was, in fact, 101coloured sketches from the collection in 1857 (never exhibited as such but prepared as a trial run) was presented in the form of a tour to the Rhine, Switzerland and Venice. It demonstrated, in the words of Ruskin’s biographer Tim Hilton, ‘how much of his expertise was topographical’7 and that the identification of sites (which he felt well-qualified to undertake) would be a primary task of any future cataloguing of the Bequest. Yet in conceiving this ‘first hundred’ in this form, Ruskin selected works from different years and probably extracted many of them from the rolled sketchbooks that Turner used late in life. In pursuit of his vision of Turner, he had little regard for the integrity of what he found. He had no hesitation in dismembering sketchbooks, breaking up Turner’s own annotated selections of their contents, or dispensing highly subjective critical judgements.
Ruskin completed his survey of the Bequest in the spring of 1858. It included choices of works for subsequent display and recommendations for their presentation in frames or cases. These, like his later campaign against the exposure of coloured drawings to light (in which he was well ahead of the National Gallery), were exemplary and anticipate modern collection care. The same cannot be said of the selective principles that he applied to the Bequest as a whole. He divided works into three main categories, for immediate or subsequent exhibition in London given available space, or for distribution ‘among Provincial Schools of Art’. A final category consisted of sketches he considered too slight or feeble to exhibit at all. From the first two, he chose works for display at the National Gallery or Marlborough House, beginning with a first larger selection in October 1857.8 In his report to the National Gallery in March that year he set out his system for numbering and packaging leaves removed from dilapidated sketch or notebooks; proposals for the mounting and safe storage of coloured studies or finished drawings; regional tours of works that ‘might be spared with little loss to the collection in London’; and the suggestion that the remaining ‘large mass [which] would cast unjust discredit on the finer works with which they were associated’ should be bound in volumes placed on special access only: ‘They ought not to be scattered or parted with, because they form illustrations, often dependent as much on their quantity as on their style, of the habits of life and tones of temper, and, too often, errors of judgement, of the greatest landscape painter who ever lived’.9
This was a mild public expression of the disillusionment that had come over Ruskin as he examined his hero’s studio remains in their entirety. Having previously defended Turner from critics who attacked his later work for its colouring and handling or bemoaned his supposed abandonment of technical and conceptual discipline, Ruskin now found evidence of actual moral collapse or ‘failure of mind’. While still working on the Bequest, he admitted in print his confusion before ‘the strange impartiality of Turner’s mind, and the vast cadence of subjects in which he was able to take an interest’.10 Years later, as his own mind fell apart, he confided to his diary the immense physical and emotional toll the project had cost him:
The manual labour would not have hurt me but the excitement involved in seeing unfolded the whole career of Turner’s mind during his life, joined with much sorrow ... and with great anxiety, and heavy sense of responsibility besides, were very trying: and I have never in my life felt so exhausted as when I locked the last box, and gave the keys to Mr. Wornum, in May, 1858.11
In many subsequent accounts, Ruskin’s shock at what he discovered hidden in the Bequest is epitomised by his reaction to the parcel of Turner’s erotic drawings set aside by the executors, which in the light of modern psychology probably consisted as much of fear as disgust. For his part, Wornum seems to have believed ownership of such subjects was illegal and later in 1858 he is supposed to have burned them, with Ruskin’s endorsement or in his presence. But although Ruskin, in a later letter to the Keeper, appeared to implicate himself in the destruction12 his wider comments are ambiguous and proof is inconclusive; at any rate, at least some material of this kind has survived. Arguably, this alleged act of censorship is a distraction from the fundamentals of Ruskin’s highly selective and interventionist treatment of the Bequest. As Finberg observed in introducing his Inventory,‘The only questions that had been seriously considered were, what and how many drawings could be publicly exhibited’.13 For Ruskin, this remained the benchmark, whether he was choosing drawings for loan to the University Galleries, Oxford, in 1878 or, in 1880 on the brink of a mental breakdown, writing up a fantasy rearrangement of the National Gallery display (which its Trustees then had no intention of implementing).14 While Ruskin’s choices were made primarily on grounds of aesthetic quality, technical interest and topographical content, and to demonstrate draughtsmanship and ways of seeing, his judgements could be idiosyncratic. He was apt to misdate drawings in an effort to marshal them into his own sense of Turner’s stylistic development. Above all his approach was hierarchical. Not only did he prioritise works he thought fit for display, but he graded them according to his own estimation of their merit. This meant that many sketchbooks and notebooks were broken up, and created a large mass of rejects which were effectively excluded from further study.
It goes without saying that Ruskin was immensely influential, building in his books and exhibition notes (always in dazzling prose) the architecture of interpretation through which Turner was seen for a generation, and imposing himself on the physical organisation of the Bequest. In both respects, the first subjective, emotional and involving a great deal of imaginative projection, the second selective, judgemental and as often resulting in structural damage as protective care, his methods were the reverse of modern critical, curatorial and conservation practice. Nevertheless, they remained in operation for many years. His third category of exhibitable works, those fit for regional distribution, fuelled a cycle of Loan Collection exhibitions,which circulated from 1869 into the twentieth century. The first were arranged by Wornum but were heavily dependent on Ruskin’s work, and like the displays he selected himself, resulted in a physical fragmentation of the Bequest – with the added complication of geographical separation. Disruptive divisions also pertained in the arrangement of the collection in London. While exhibitable drawings were displayed in frames or cases, at the South Kensington Museum or the National Gallery, Ruskin’s rejects stayed packed in tin boxes. In a manuscript catalogue delivered to the National Gallery in May 1862, he divided the unexhibited works into parcels and classified them in terms ranging upwards from ‘rubbish’ (although he admitted that these distinctions were ‘horrible’ and only provisional). Throughout all these categories, as the National Gallery would state in 1905, were spread the leaves of more than 150 dismembered sketchbooks, each of which had consisted of about 100 pages.
Title page for the first volume of Finberg's inventory from 1909
Title page for the first volume of Finberg's inventory from 1909
As the first arranger and cataloguer of the Turner Bequest, Ruskin is inescapable and indispensable. But it is apparent from this statistic alone that his work had created as many obstacles as benefits to future organisation and research. The first to confront them in detail was the artist, journalist and art historian Alexander J. Finberg who was invited to undertake a new catalogue of the Bequest in 1905. Introducing his Inventory, which appeared in two volumes in 1909 (fig.2),Finberg fell short of taking Ruskin to task for his more destructive interventions but cited the problems arising from his hierarchy of artistic merit: ‘This system of classification ... had obvious and serious disadvantages as a permanent arrangement of the whole collection. One of the chief of these ... was the way it broke up the chronological and topographical connexions of the drawings’. As an example, Finberg described how drawings made during a tour of the English Midlands were ‘scattered at random among the drawings exhibited in the Turner Water Colour Rooms [at the National Gallery], the six loan collections, the Oxford loan collection, and the three hundred odd parcels of unexhibited drawings’.15 In an attempt to heal these divisions the National Gallery had decided on ‘a strictly chronological arrangement of the whole collection ... Such a classification seemed best calculated to bring out the connexions of the drawings with one another, as well as the relations of the drawings as a whole to the artist’s public career’.16
Following this approach, Finberg based his work on a ‘careful and minute examination of the sketch books and drawings’ and, where possible, the reconstruction of itineraries and tours and identification of subjects. The taxonomy of the Inventory is straightforward. Sketchbooks and related groups of loose works are given a Roman numeral while individual pages or sheets within them are numbered numerically or, sometimes, alphabetically. Where possible, groupings are formed around date and subject matter. Miscellaneous works are usually grouped by their ostensible function (such as ‘Colour Beginnings’) or by media. For Finberg, the format of an inventory, without commentary or critique, must have helped free him from ‘the cloud of words’ with which, as he remarked in 1903, Ruskin had obscured Turner’s works.17 Concise, impartial, confined to titles and summaries of subject matter, brief notes on dating or related works and, occasionally, transcripts of historical reports, his text is the antithesis of Ruskin’s opinionated, passionate prose and instinct for romance. He reserved his own opinions and aesthetic judgements for his book Turner’s Sketches and Drawings published in 1910, and the new insights he had gleaned into Turner’s life for his biography of the artist published in 1939.
Modestly, Finberg stated that the Inventory ‘must on no account be regarded as anything more than a beginning or first instalment of the task of putting the Drawings of the Turner Bequest into proper order’. He admitted that many dismembered sketchbooks still had to be rebound and that drawings on the versos of mounted sheets, laid down and hidden by Ruskin, should be revealed. He was frank about his difficulties with Turner’s ‘phonetic methods of spelling ... and the appalling illegibility of his handwriting’.18 He urged a programme of foreign travel to continue the work of identifying continental European subjects that had eluded him. Although much progress has been made, not all these problems have yet been solved and they make Finberg’s achievement, with limited time and resources and none of the research tools now taken for granted, all the more remarkable. The primary source of information on works on paper in the Bequest, the Inventory has remained in constant use for a century and no doubt will continue to be so. In deference to Finberg’s work, and to their universal usage since, his Turner Bequest numbers (e.g. Turner Bequest XIV A) are retained alongside Tate accession numbers.
As Finberg foresaw, his work soon needed revision. In part, it was undermined by further structural changes to Bequest material. In January 1928 the Thames flooded the cellars of the Tate Gallery, where the works on paper were then housed, and all were submerged. They were saved by the dedicated work, in icy water and darkness, of a group of aficionados led by Finberg himself. Many sheets were damaged, often by the transfer of colour from an image to the back of the next leaf; some were lost; some sketchbook bindings were broken. All the works on paper were removed to higher ground and the custodianship of the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings where a programme of conservation and mounting, and rebinding of sketchbooks was carried out. The pagination of the sketchbooks was sometimes altered to conform to new knowledge, disturbing Finberg’s numbering but in some cases reinstating a sequence of pages extant before Ruskin got to work. Moreover, as the century advanced, many scholars contributed to the process of refining Finberg’s descriptions, often in annotations to copies of the Inventory held by the British Museum or on the mounts of drawings. Even more significant was the explosion of scholarship that followed the bicentenary exhibition of Turner’s work in 1974. This argued not only for a revision of Finberg but of the entire Bequest in the light of new knowledge and changes in the culture of research in nineteenth-century art history.
The prime initiative for a new catalogue came from the British Museum and its Turner specialist, Andrew Wilton, and it remained a curatorial objective when the works on paper from the Bequest returned to the Tate Gallery to join most of the paintings in the Clore Gallery, opened in 1987 with Wilton as lead curator. To inform and prepare for the project, a programme of Turner Scholarships generated important new research, enabling large tracts of the Bequest to be properly described, subjects recognised and materials identified. To this process, Tate curators and conservators also contributed. Following Wilton’s retirement, fresh impetus came with dedicated funding from Tate’s Trustees, providing for a cataloguing team over five years to spring 2012, and initial support from The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and The Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation supported two contributing fellows, Andrea Fredericksen and Meredith Gamer, who catalogued, respectively, Turner’s diagrams for his Royal Academy Perspective Lectures and designs for vignettes illustrating literature. Professor David Hill contributed material on subjects in Yorkshire and the North of England, mainly associated with Walter Fawkes and Farnley, and those drawn on Turner’s trip to the Aosta Valley with Munro of Novar in 1836, by kind permission of Leeds University.
At an early stage, and before Tate decided in 2007 to publish all its collection catalogues and related research in this format, it was determined to publish entries of Turner’s works on paper online. This reflected the vast scale and daunting economics of the project; the potential for future additions and corrections; and the scholarly benefits of issuing material as it was produced rather than waiting for the completion of the project. Further, it was felt that the entries would ultimately be more readily searchable, and thus generative of new research, as an online resource, as well as, importantly, more accessible to readers around the world.
The catalogue is arranged chronologically, as Finberg’s was, but also thematically. Hence sketchbooks do not stand alone, as they did in the Inventory, but are grouped, wherever possible with other related works, according to the tours on which they were used or the themes and subjects with which they are concerned. Within five period-based sections, the catalogue follows a simple two- or three-part structure, in which these groups are introduced with a list of contents, and the works themselves have their own entries. Sketchbooks have generic introductions, discussing their content and context, and individual entries for each page. Exhibition and publication history, and comments on media, materials and condition are provided throughout. As the catalogue is still in progress and is subject, of course, to future revision, entries are signed and dated by their authors but are not numbered. Nor has it been practical or desirable to follow Finberg’s numbering overall since many works have been redated, reidentified, or allocated to different groupings. Instead, the catalogue can be searched by subject, by reviewing the menu of tours and themes, or by Turner Bequest (Finberg) numbers as these are retained for reference.
A forensic re-examination and description of the sketchbooks has been a primary aim of this project. Often these have been rebound or rearranged since Finberg, usually in the early 1930s. This was not only done to repair damage caused by the Tate flood, but to return leaves previously removed for display in the touring Loan Collections which had since come home to roost. Hence their present order of contents is not as listed and numbered by Finberg, or indeed as implied by Tate’s accession numbers, since these were based directly on Finberg without a fresh assessment of the original material. Finberg’s numbers remain stamped on the pages which often have earlier numbers written by Ruskin or other hands as well. Research for this catalogue has revealed that these numbers were sometimes applied in reverse to Turner’s likely use of a book. Since it is now impossible to reconcile these anomalies, or to attempt a completely new accessioning, the catalogue provides concordances at the end of the sketchbooks’ introductions wherever they are thought to be helpful.
As many sketchbooks are more properly notebooks, and contain a great variety of inscriptions, they are complex resources whose interpretation involves much more than the reconstruction of an itinerary or the recognition of a building or a place. Following Ruskin in this respect, Finberg tended to prioritise the topographical aspect of Turner’s work and often admitted defeat in the face of his handwriting – not only terrible in itself but subject to eccentric spelling and bewildering shorthand. However, modern techniques of scanning and digital enhancement have transformed our ability to read (or at least, guess) what he meant, while online book searches have led to the recognition of many sources for his notes – which are often not original but summaries or versions of published material. While Wilton and others have recognised that Turner was not always original in his frequent versifying, but adapted other poets at a time when imitation was a recognisable form and plagiarism an unknown concept, Turner’s notes on other matters indicate far wider reading. Supporting Ruskin’s amazement at Turner’s ‘vast cadence of interests’, they are sometimes surprising, or even troubling in their implications. If today’s approach to handling archives, rather than Victorian prudery, might urge caution in intruding on private matters such as health or medication, there seems little point in reserving some material and not others in a survey that sets out to be comprehensive. For all the fresh insights that have emerged, however, Turner’s real private life remains as mysterious as ever.
Throughout this project, the aim has been to provide a multi-disciplinary account of Turner’s works on paper and their historical, cultural and critical contexts and legacy. This is no more than should be expected for an artist of such exceptional range whose stylistic and geographical trajectory was so large and who travelled further still in notes and reflections in his private sketchbooks and unseen works on paper. Since Turner pushed boundaries so far, he has been particularly susceptible to culture wars between those who regard his explorations of light and colour (especially on paper in his later years) as autonomous and the logical conclusion of his art, his private or hidden work as its truest expression, and on the other hand those who prefer to place him in his contemporary milieu and explore its reflections in his work. It is not the function of a catalogue to choose between such positions, though it can acknowledge them. But nor should a catalogue be merely descriptive or empirical, though it must be object-based. A collection as large and diverse as the Turner Bequest should open a window both on the artist and the world in which he moved. What is revealed or implied, however, can never be completely definitive, must remain provisional, but it is hoped will provide a basis for further research and discussion.

David Blayney Brown
December 2012

The summary of Turner’s will and of the Turner Bequest given here is indebted to an earlier draft introduction to this catalogue, written by Andrew Wilton. For a full survey of the administration of the Bequest see Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Manchester and New York 2007.
For the will see N.R.D. Powell, ‘Will and Bequest’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann eds.,The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.382–4. See also Selby Whittingham, An Historical Account of the Will of J.M.W.Turner, R.A. 2nd edn, 1996 (this essay provides much useful detail while attacking the national institutions that have had responsibility for the Bequest).
National Gallery Archives, Box K, III; annotated copy in the Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain.
Ian Warrell, Turner’s Secret Sketches, London 2012, pp.32–3.
Report of the Director of the National Gallery, London 1857, p.38.
John Ruskin, MS preface to Modern Painters, vol.V, in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, London 1905, vol.VII, p.4 note 1; Warrell 2012, p.32.
Tim Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years 1819–1859, New Haven and London 1985, p.243.
John Ruskin, Catalogue of the Sketches and Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Exhibited at Marlborough House in the Year 1857–8. Accompanied with Illustrative Notes, London 1857..
Reprinted by Finberg 1909, vol.I, p.ix.
Ruskin 1857; quoted by Hilton 1985, p.250.
Quoted by Hilton 1985, p.251.
National Gallery Archive, NG5/348/1862.
Finberg 1909, vol.I, p.ix.
John Ruskin, Catalogue of the Drawings and Sketches by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., At Present Exhibited in the National Gallery. Revised and Cast in Progressive Groups, with Explanatory Notes, London 1881.
Finberg 1909, vol.I, p.xiii.
Ibid., vol.I, p.xi.
Finberg (writing anonymously), Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal, no.406, October 1903, pp.354–5; see Ian Warrell, ‘Turner’s Legacy: The Artist’s Bequest and its Influence’, in Katharine Lochnan and others, Turner Whistler Monet, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 2004, pp.67, 239 note 7.
Finberg 1909, vol.I, p.xvi.

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Project Overview’, December 2012, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, December 2012, http://tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/project-overview-r1109225, accessed 19 April 2014.