This article considers a Turner watercolour of Calais. It was engraved in 1836 for a volume of Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott. In its published form it is tiny. The whole volume is less than seven inches high, and the image is less than three inches across. The watercolour is barely larger than the engraving. Hardly anyone these days has the patience or perhaps the eye-strength to peer into such works. Yet, in its time this was a visual sensation. Today, such things are almost invisible in the hubbub and hurly-burly of visual culture. Generally, however, it is not the largest fruit that tastes sweeter. So even in the midst of all this commotion it seems worth signalling a work in which huge scope can be discovered within almost laughably confined dimensions.
The subject is the view across the old harbour of Calais: To the left is the spire of the church of Notre Dame; below is the Colonne Louis XVIII; in the centre is the Tour du Guet; to the right the belfry of the former Hotel de Ville, and to the right, the former Porte de Mer.
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Turner made numerous visits to Calais between 1802 and the 1840s, and for him it was often a destination in its own right as well as a point of entry and departure. Much of the Calais that Turner knew was obliterated by bombing in May 1940. In modern times the port has been hugely developed and streamlined to facilitate rapid onward passage. That trend was only exacerbated by the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994. Today, there is a peculiarly new kind of commerce at Calais; that of migrants awaiting passage to the UK on an inflatable boat or as a stowaway in a lorry. We shall return to that in the light of Turner.
There is no sketch that presents itself as the obvious basis of the composition. The sole candidate is a thumbnail sketch of 1824 in the Rivers Meuse and Moselle sketchbook, TB CCXVI 186a, Tate D19923. It is a small and very rapid note, but this appears to be the only occasion on which Turner made any memorandum of this particular view. The panorama appears on the page here in two registers, firstly at the top of the page, and then continuing to the left in the centre with the book turned the other way round, to include the Colonne Louis XVIII and part of the eastern pier.
There are sketches from nearby viewpoints as well as of individual buildings in the same book and from different years but none have all four landmarks in quite this relation, or from this particular angle.
In the same sketchbook;
f.10 (D19570) has a series of thumbnail studies of the quay which includes one, at the top, of a steamboat near the Colonne Louis XVIII. This is continued to the right in the register below to include the former Porte de la Mer with the Hotel de Ville and Tour du Guet a little further left, and then continued further right in the third register to include boats in the harbour with Fort Rouge beyond. Given the inclusion of the Porte de Mer, which is not visible in f.186a, this sketch probably also served as a reference for the watercolour.
f.13a has a detailed study of the spire of Notre Dame, together with the base of the belfry of the old Hotel de Ville. The juxtaposition is a little odd, given that the sketch implies that the spire crowns the tower of which is appears to be the continuation. Despite the potential confusion, this was one of Turner’s most careful records of the church spire.
f.14 has a small and faint, but quite detailed, thumbnail study along the top edge showing the two old gates letting onto the harbour of Calais. On the left is the Porte du Havre, and on the right the Porte de Mer. Turner gives detail of just one gate in the watercolour, which more resembles that of the Porte de Mer.
f.176 has a couple of thumbnail sketches of distant views of the town, perhaps from the beach to the west, with Notre Dame and the Tour du Guet recognisable, but seeming to omit the Hotel de Ville. Incidentally this page has a woman bent double, which might be the germ of the figure in the oil painting of Calais Sands exh 1830 (Bury AG).
f.188 has a very rapid note of the view from the end of the west pier, but it is hard to be certain of the forms of individual buildings
f.236a is perhaps Turner’s principal architectural reference from the visit to Calais in 1824. Here he records the Tour du Guet with some care, together with the Belfry of the Hotel de Ville. The initial impression, however, is misleading. Turner drew the Tour du Guet first and then indicated the Belfry of the Hotel de Ville very cursorily at the right. He then drew the Belfry in much more detail in the space remaining above his original drawing. The resulting misapprehension is that the two towers are much closer together than in fact. It may be that this illusion carried through into the finished composition.
f.250 carries two thumbnail sketches of the view from near the end of the east pier, with indications of Notre Dame, the Tour du Guet and the Hotel de Ville.
None of these sketches suggest that he had any specific project in mind at this stage. More that he was exploring out of pure curiosity and interest. Over the course of this and several other visits, he developed real familiarity with it as a site, and attachment to it as a subject.
TO BE CONTINUED