Lights will guide you home: Turner at Calais #2

This article continues the consideration of Turner’s watercolour of the harbour at Calais and its 1836 engraving. In this part we take a tour round the principal landmarks, and gather a few photographic and historical references.

Calais, an illustration to Walter Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather’, i.e. Calais Harbour, with the church of Notre Dame, Tour du Guet, Hotel de Ville and Porte de Mer, c.1834
Watercolour vignette, image approx 152 x 102 mm, on sheet, 444 x 345 mm
France, Calais, Musee du Calais
Image Sotheby’s 8 June 1999, lot 25

The central building in the composition is the Tour du Guet. This was built as a watchtower in the 13th century, and latterly served as a lighthouse from 1818 until 1848 when a new lighthouse was built some distance further east. It survived when most of the old town was destroyed by bombing in May 1940. It remains as the principal building in the Place d’Armes, albeit somewhat gaunt and bare.

Immediately west of the tour du Guet stood the old Hotel de Ville with its belfry. The belfry and old town hall dated to the 16th and 17th centuries but the main part of the Hotel de Ville was built in 1740.

The ensemble was gutted during the siege of Calais in May 1940, and was subsequently razed.

To the left of Turner’s composition we can see the squat spire of the Church of Notre Dame.

By Nilfanion – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This splendid large church dates from the 12th and 14th centuries, and survived the 1940 seige more-or-less intact, but was severely damaged by bombing when Calais was retaken in 1944. The bell tower collapsed through the roof, and was reconstructed between 1963 and 1973.

Below the spire, can be seen the Colonne Louis XVIII.
Lendert Van Laer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

This was erected on the east pier in 1814 to commemorate the landing on 24 April of Louis XVIII and Restoration of the Royalty following the exile of Napoleon to Elba. The column overlooked the main berthing for the cross channel packet boats. It was removed in 1939 to facilitate the redevelopment of the dock area and thus escaped destruction during the war, and was subsequently reinstalled on the quay not far from its original position.

At the end of the quay to the right of the composition can be seen an ornamental gateway, in the town wall. In fact there were two gates, almost side-by-side, the Porte du Havre and the Porte de Mer.

They are visible in an 1859 lithograph at the British Museum showing the new railway station to connect with the cross-channel ferries.

That on the right, with its heavy Baroque volutes is the one drawn by Turner in the Rivers Meuse and Moselle sketchbook, TB CCXVI f.10 (see part 1). That stood at the end of the Rue de la Mer. That to the left was at the end of Rue du Havre. That gate was particularly famous for being included in Hogarth’s celebrated painting and engraving of O the Roast Beef of England (‘The Gate of Calais’) of 1748.

The painting is full of jocular Francophobia, no doubt excited by Hogarth’s indignation at having been arrested and jailed as a spy for sketching in the town that summer. Both portals were lost in the devastation of May 1940.

It has to be admitted that neither gate closely resembles those in the watercolour or engraving. This may hint at a larger issue with Turner’s composition that we will grapple with in due course.


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