Turner to Monet
By the early 1830s Turner was a regular visitor to the seaside town of Margate, on the eastern tip of the county of Kent, about seventy miles downriver from London. Turner’s first introduction to Margate came in the 1790s, when the place was essentially just a small fishing town, but it had since become a bustling resort that Londoners could reach effortlessly by steamboat in half a day. The geographic setting is remarkable, benefiting from a magnificently open prospect over the sea to the north and east, which allegedly induced Turner to claim that the skies in this area were among the loveliest in Europe. In addition to this natural prospect, the attractions of Margate were somewhat unorthodox for Turner, stemming from his clandestine relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth (1798–1875), a young widow, who was initially his landlady and subsequently his mistress and muse.
From the windows of Mrs Booth’s lodging-house, near the harbour quay, Turner was able to watch the arrival and departure of the London steamers, a couple of which formed the subject of a painting he displayed at the Royal Academy in 1840 Rockets and blue lights (close at hand) to warn steamboats of shoal water.1 The basic composition of that work was anticipated by a study, Waves breaking on a lee shore c. 1840, which is a pair to the work exhibited here.2The studies focus on the shore on either side of Margate harbour; in this case looking back from the west to the light tower at the end of the protective outer wall, which is created as a dull silhouette by the later application of a lighter area of whitish grey paint around it. As in even his earliest depictions of the sea, Turner sought to give his painted representation dramatic textures that replicate, and seemingly act as a substitute for, the movement of water.
Both of the Margate studies are painted with such expressive vigour that it has generally been assumed they may have been direct observations of the rolling sea, capturing the surge of the waves as they splay upwards into flying crests, before crashing on the beach. Though Turner evidently did make plein air studies in pencil and watercolour at Margate, the impracticalities of working in oils, while witnessing such fast-changing weather conditions, make it unlikely that this picture would have been painted in the same way. This makes the apparent spontaneity and directness of his images all the more impressive, especially his vivid attempts to provide an impression of the sea in motion, at a time before the introduction of photography enabled artists greater opportunity to dissect the underlying principles of movement more precisely.3]
1 Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The paintings of J.M.W. Turner, rev. edn, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984, cat. 387; collection of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.
2 Butlin and Joll, cat. 458, collection of the Tate; Ian Warrell (ed.), J.M.W. Turner, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2007, cat. 133, where re-dated from c. 1835 to c. 1840.
3 For a more qualified appraisal of Turner’s depictions of the sea, see Christiana Payne, Where the sea meets the land. Artists on the coast in nineteenth-century Britain, Bristol: Sansom & Co., 2007, p. 49, notes 31, 60.