Rochester, seen across the River Medway, c.1793

Pencil and watercolour on paper, 216 x 281 mm, 8 1/2 x 11 ins

Inscribed: Lower right, in a distinctive script, ‘Turner’.

USA, Massachusetts, Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

Turner catalogues: Wilton no.87; tdb237

This is a medium-sized studio watercolour depicting two single-masted seagoing cabin vessels moored in the centre foreground, near some trees to the left. In the right foreground a couple of figures cross a fence carrying what appear to be oars. A gaff-rigged sailboat seen from the port beam passes in the mid-distance, whilst beyond stretches a small city or town, with a squat-spired church at the centre and a square castle keep to the right. A river stretches across the middle distance before the town, and passes under a bridge in the right distance.

Image courtesy of Clark Institute, USA, Manton Collection

The subject is Rochester, Kent seen from the north across the river Medway.

Richard Cruttwell has a splendid photograph from almost exactly the same viewpoint on Google Earth.

Photograph by David Hill

This is the first of fifteen watercolours by Turner that were engraved for publication in The Copper Plate Magazine. The plate was engraved by J. Walker and J. Storer and appeared in volume 2, no.28, bearing the publication date of 1 May 1794. There are a few slight variations between the watercolour and the engraving. The figures at the right, for example, are smaller in the engraving than in the watercolour. Otherwise, except for some loss of subtlety from the finer details of the watercolour, the engraving is a careful reproduction.

Distant View of Rochester 1793-4 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Turner’s pencil drawing of this subject is Turner Bequest XV B; Tate D00158. In developing the finished composition Turner rethought the arrangement of the foreground boats in order to lead the eye to the castle more clearly.

Agnew’s 1997, together with Wilton 1979 and 2001 date the watercolour c.1793, but the sketch on which it is based is dated to 1794 by Andrew Wilton in Wilton 2001 and in the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest. It seems too tight a schedule, however, for Turner to have sketched the subject, painted and supplied the watercolour, Walker and Storer to have engraved it, and Harrison collated it into a publication, all before I May of that year. Wilton 2001 cites a visit by Turner to Rochester in 1793 and the earlier date for both sketch and watercolour is to be preferred.

Wilton 2001 notes the highly idiosyncratic way in which Turner manages nearly to obscure the town with the foreground boats, and that he used the same device in a later oil of Harlech Castle (B&J 9).

No-one ever seem to have been troubled by the sense of levels in this composition. The foreground boats seem to be set on a plane about one hundred feet higher than the river Medway beyond them. Put more positively, one might say that this is an early appearance of a device that Turner came to use routinely in his mature work.

David Hill, 3 June 2020


John Walker from whom bought by
Anonymous collector;
Phillips, London 8 November 1993, and sold for £7,800 to
Agnew’s (1997) from whom bought by
Ackermann and Johnson and sold 1997 to
Sir Edwin Manton (2001) by whom bequeathed 2007 to
USA, Massachusetts, Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

References and exhibitions:

Engraved by J Walker and J Storer dated I May 1794 as ‘Rochester’ for the Copper Plate Magazine, and issued in vol.2, no.28, pl.55.
The Itinerant, 1799, re-issue of 1794 plate;
Miller 1854, pl.1
Rawlinson 1908, no.1;
Wilton 1979, No. 87 as ‘Rochester, c.1793, untraced’;
Herrmann 1990, p..10, fig.1 (engraving), citing watercolour as untraced;
TSN 68 – December, 1994 reporting 1993 sale;
Exh Agnew’s 1997 no.35 as ‘Rochester Castle, seen across the River Medway’, c.1793, repr colour, £20,000;
Wilton 2001, no.1 as Rochester, c.1793, repr colour; Turner worldwide, 2004 no.140 as ‘Rochester circa 1793’, private collection, no repr;
Clarke, Jay, ed. Landscape, Innovation, and Nostalgia: The Manton Collection of British Art. Williamstown, MA: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2012.

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