Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
On 10 May 2015, I posted a short article identifying one of the Cotman sketches at Leeds Art Gallery as a memorandum of a painting by Turner, ‘Helvoetsluis’, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832. It was touching to discover some new documentation of Cotman’s admiration for Turner. Then, just recently, a group of seven pencil sketches in an old mount popped up at a sale in Auckland, New Zealand with an attribution to Cotman. The drawings were small and slight, and the subjects unidentified and the lot seemed at first sight an altogether marginal item.
What caught my attention was the fact that one of them reminded me of the Leeds sketch. It turns out that it is not only a study of another oil painting by Turner, but also, rather remarkably, of a painting from the same 1832 exhibition. The other sketches in the mount may wait in time for connections to be made, but that of the Turner painting is worth reporting now, since it offers some evidence of significance to Turner chronology besides that of Cotman.
This is a small, careful pencil sketch of a large, single-masted, gaff-rigged barge with a poop deck, seen from the starboard stern sailing away on a starboard tack towards a large man of war on the right horizon seen from the starboard beam, laid up into the wind. There are numerous other vessels, large and small in the distance to the left. The drawing has been surrounded by a freehand framing line and inscribed ‘S H’ in the centre of the lower margin and ‘206’ towards the right.
The painting in question can be identified as J M W Turner’s Van Tromp’s Shallop, at the Entrance of the Scheldt exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832 as no.206. The inscriptions stand for ‘Somerset House’, the home of the Royal Academy until 1836, and the exhibition number.
The painting is at the Tate, but is currently identified with another exhibited title, that of Van Tromp Returning after the Battle off the Dogger Bank, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833. Turner exhibited three Van Tromp subjects in consecutive years 1831-33, and as Butlin and Joll note in their catalogue of Turner’s oil paintings (The Paintings of J M W Turner, 2 vols, Yale University Press, 2nd ed, 1984, under nos.344 and 351), the task of identifying the surviving pictures with the exhibited titles has proved difficult.
Butlin and Joll (under no.344) identify the 1832 title with a painting at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut, but qualify that by saying: ‘there is no conclusive evidence to show whether the Hartford picture and the Tate picture ‘Van Tromp returning after the battle of Battle off the Dogger Bank (no.351) are correctly identified as their titles might be considered interchangeable. However, as the Hartford title has been attached to it since at least 1889, there seems no reason not to assign Van Tromp returning after the Battle off the Dogger Bank to the Tate Gallery.. In the absence of any conflicting evidence.’ The emergence of this sketch, however, settles the equation of the Tate picture with the 1832 title, and by implication re-identifies the Hartford picture as the 1833 exhibit.
There already was some fairly clear evidence for the latter, perhaps given sufficient weight by commentators. Butlin and Joll under their entry for the 1833 exhibit (no.351) quote a review of that painting from the Morning Chronicle, which remarks on a detail of ‘Liston standing up in a boat is very funny’, a reference to the comic actor John Liston 1776-1846. The Tate picture contains nothing that could have occasioned such an observation but the Hartford picture does indeed have a prominent figure standing in the nearest boat in that composition.The Leeds collection contains a memorandum (LEEAG.1949.0009.0067) of a second painting by Turner in the same exhibition; ‘Helvoetsluys : the City of Utrecht, 64, going to Sea’, exh RA 1832 no.284 (Fuji Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan). This is likewise inscribed with the legend ‘SH’ for Somerset House and the exhibition number (see SublimeSites.co, 10 May 2015 for full discussion).
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Comparison of the present sketch with Turner’s painting is interesting. Cotman gives the boats very much more space in the composition, settles the boats rather more into the water, and rather diminishes the force of the gale, In Turner Tromp’s barge in the foreground is almost capsized in a gust that looks rather stronger than the prevailing conditions. In Cotman the barge is more upright, but everything seems tighter to the wind, and although conditions are decidedly fresh, they are not threateningly so.
Butlin and Joll also remark that ‘Classification is not made easier by the absence in either picture of any vessel which can be positively identified as a shallop’. Although it is perhaps not the most obvious term for the boat recorded here, this could by C17 and C18 terminology certainly be described as a shallop. French shallops from ‘Chaloupe’ were gaff-sailed barges such as this, though only those in service as prestige yachts would have had an elaborate stern and poop deck accommodation such as this.
The online catalogue of the International Art Centre sale gave the following details of the provenance:
‘THE HANAN COLLECTION LOTS 134 – 148
A friendship conducted through correspondence existed between Dunedin lawyer, Mark Hanan and the Anglo-Welsh artist Sir Frank Brangwyn RA.. Well aware of the austerity imposed by rationing in post war England, Hanan would regularly send parcels of New Zealand products such as woollen clothing and cheeses to his artist friend. In turn, Brangwyn sent Hanan paintings by both himself and other artists whom he admired and collected. This exchange continued until the artist’s death in 1956. The largest collection of Sir Frank Brangwyn paintings in New Zealand is permanently held by the Hanan family. In 2012 the collection was loaned to the Dunedin Art Gallery for a grand retrospective exhibition. A small selection of works from the collection are now offered for sale.’
When, where and in what form Brangwyn acquired the Cotman drawings remains to be established. He would certainly have known the Leeds architect Sydney Kitson through his work in Leeds, principally Brangwyn’s major work, the mosaics in the church of St Aidan, Roundhay Road, but also through acquisitions of Brangwyn’s work by Leeds Art Gallery. Brangwyn would certainly have known of Kitson’s work on Cotman culminating in the publication of Kitson’s monumental Life of John Sell Cotman in 1937, and of the large collection of sketches that Kitson had formed and left to Leeds on his death in that year. Some conversation between Kitson and Brangwyn seems highly likely, and I will look out for any indications of a connection as we work further through the cataloguing of the Leeds Cotman collection.
The full story of this will emerge in the cataloguing of the Leeds sketches, but the present occasion does provide the opportunity to hint at some of the storylines that are beginning to unfold. Despite the artistic investment that Cotman made ships and boats, the ambitions that he harboured for these sketches actually came to very little. There are some superb watercolours and oil paintings, but nothing like the substantial, reputation-establishing body of work that he no doubt imagined he might produce. Yet here, working his way through the Grand Rooms of Somerset House in 1832, he might well have reflected that he had himself exhibited works of ambition there thirty years or so earlier, when Turner was still in his twenties.
Throughout the interval Turner had annually lit up those walls with masterpieces. Now, in admiring these seascapes instinct with experience of being on the sea Cotman could not help feeling, and indeed demonstrating in his own memoranda, that he was the equal of all this. In terms of professional achievement Turner was everything he was not, but he was also one of the few living artists that Cotman truly measured himself against- the keeper of the standards that he himself aimed for, and the reminder of how fine was his own strength. Cotman found himself in various dark places during the 1830s, but Turner was a constant reference by which to remind himself of his own possible course.