Whitstable oyster beds, Kent
Watercolour: 6.1(h) x 9.6(w) in /
15.6(h) x 24.4(w) cm
Signed lower left: J M W Turner; inscribed lower right on notice board: Whitstable / Oyster Beds / Notice
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JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER, R.A.
1775 – London – 1851
Whitstable Oyster Beds, Kent
Watercolour with some scraping-out on paper:
6 3/16 x 9 9/16 in / 15.7 x 24.3 cm
Inscribed lower left: J M W Turner
Inscribed lower right, on notice board: Whitstable / Oyster Beds / Notice
Painted circa 1824-5
By John Horsburgh (1791-1869) and published by John and Arthur Arch on 8th May 1826 for W. B. Cooke’s, Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (Part XVI); reprinted as pl. 1 in the collected edition of 1826, vol.1. (Rawlinson no.127)
Commissioned by W.B. Cooke (1778-1855) for £10.10s, and received c.1825;
Sold 5th August 1826 for £17.17s (see Finberg 1929, p.75);
Bt by George Fennell Robson (1788-1833) on behalf of Mrs. George Haldimand, née Sophia Charlotte Prinsep (?1788-1861);
her sale, Christie’s, London, 21st June 1861, lot 80 (included in the third of three albums of watercolours, assembled c.1826-8);
Thomas Agnew’s (bt for £1,500);
John Edward Taylor (1830-1905);
his sale, Christie’s, London, 25 April 1868
Vokins Gallery, London, by 1883;
Stephenson Clarke (1824-1891), purchased from the above;
By descent to his son, Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke (1862-1948), Borde Hill, near Haywards Heath, Sussex;
By descent to his son, Colonel Sir Ralph Stephenson Clarke, KBE (1892-1970);
By descent until 1980;
Christie’s, London, 18th March 1980, lot 280;
Bt Leger Galleries, London, 1980;
From whom acquired by a private UK collector;
Richard Green, London, 2011
Private collection, UK
London, Great Portland Street, Vokins Gallery, April 1883
London, Great Portland Street, Vokins Gallery, 1891
Eastbourne, Towner Art Gallery, The Haldimand Collection of English Watercolours Lent by Colonel Sir Ralph and Lady Clarke, June-July 1963, no.82
Leger Galleries, London, included in their Exhibition of English Watercolours, 10th November-24th December 1980, no.22
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1877, p.556
The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 23rd April 1883, p.2 (issue 8902)
The Times, 24th April 1883, p.3
Sir Walter Armstrong, Turner, 1902, p.285
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1908, I, p.68, no.127
A. J. Finberg, Turner’s ‘Southern Coast’, with a Catalogue of the Engravings, 1929, pp.69, 75
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p.355, no.484
Eric Shanes, Turner’s Rivers, Harbours and Coasts, 1981, pp. 29, no.47, 155, and colour plate 47
Eric Shanes, Turner’s England 1810-38, London 1990, p.72, no.48 (illus in colour)
This wonderfully atmospheric view of the coast at Whitstable was painted in the early 1820s, when Turner’s reputation as a painter in water colours was at its peak. During these years various publishers of topographical prints and illustrated books realized that Turner’s name alone was sufficient to guarantee interest and substantial sales. Accordingly, he was repeatedly invited to contribute to new projects focusing on different elements of British scenery, such as the ‘Rivers’ and ‘Ports’ of the nation, or the developments in London.
Although the novel demands of these new schemes were evidently seductive, Turner simultaneously managed to honour and conclude other pre-existing commitments. Chief of these was the long-running series of Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England. First conceived in 1811, the Southern Coast project was the only realized part of a much more ambitious plan to circumnavigate the entire British coast. Once work had got under way it was apparent that the original scope would need to be more limited. The decision to re-frame the parameters of the project was to some extent determined by the success of a rival and better-organised publication, William Daniell’s Voyage Round Great Britain, which also produced its first parts in 1814, and subsequently managed to complete its full circuit in a sequence of over three hundred aquatints during 1825 (fig.1).
The instigator of the Southern Coast publication was William Bernard Cooke, who initially intended to commission, engrave, publish and distribute all the images himself, with assistance from his brother George. At the outset Turner was already the principal attraction, but the series was only viable because his designs were to feature among examples by the most popular of his peers, including William Westall, Peter de Wint, Louis Francia, William Collins, Henry Edridge, William Alexander, and Luke Clennell. Turner accepted the relatively modest terms of £7.10s for each of his works at the outset, but after four parts had been issued renegotiated a better rate (increased to 10 guineas). Like the competition from Daniell’s Voyage, this further unsettled Cooke’s calculations.
Just as significant was Turner’s insistence on the highest standards in the translation of his work into black and white line engravings. He oversaw the process in detail and sometimes specified successive revisions to the images. This painstaking work received much greater remuneration than he himself received: the engravers working on the Southern Coast were paid £40 for each design they completed. Once approved, only a couple of hundred impressions were printed from the engraved copper plates, because this soft metal did not permit long print runs (unlike steel, which was introduced in the mid-1820s). A further limitation on the commercial viability was the artist’s requirement that he be permitted to retain the best proofs as part of the terms of his contract.
By 1823 Cooke was anxious to bring the Southern Coast sequence to a close. To this end, as well as locating useful subject matter from his earlier sketchbooks, Turner structured his tours over the next couple of years to include places that had still not featured in the publication. Curiously, although he travelled in Kent in 1824 and 1825, no sketches of Whitstable have yet been identified that provide the basis for this watercolour. Even so, it is full of the kind of details that would have grown out of an accumulation of observations, made as Turner walked through and around the port. He had probably first visited Whitstable many years earlier, when staying at Margate as a teenager, during his first excursions from London.
In the watercolour the viewer looks back eastwards towards Whitstable from the gently rolling hills along the shore at Seasalter. The fall of light under the fast-moving afternoon rainclouds casts a pool of brilliant sunshine on Whitstable itself, with the protective arms of its little harbour on the extreme left. Further inland, it is possible to discern the dark silhouette of the tower of the ancient All Saints’ Church on the edge of a passing squall, and, to its right, the local windmill. Its white sails were then a vital landmark for passing vessels (However, the mill was painted black in the 1880s after permission was granted from Trinity House). From the distance of this selected viewpoint, the coast beyond Whitstable tapers off towards a blue headland, surmounted by the ruins of Reculver. Turner skillfully structured the image so that the viewer’s eye travels out from the oyster pots and the local ‘Notice’ in the bottom right corner along diagonals to various other points of interest.
Most obviously, the cart at the centre of the composition, making its lumbering way back towards the road, provides a further link between those engaged in the back-aching work of harvesting the oysters, and the commercial nature of this long-standing activity on the Kent coast. Records indicate that oysters have been collected at Whitstable and traded since the Roman era. During Turner’s lifetime it has been estimated that the port was sending as many as 80 million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market in London. The text accompanying Turner’s image (apparently written by William Coombe) specified that there were then perhaps eighty oyster dredging boats based at Whitstable, and that the fleet was the town’s chief employer (surpassing the production of salt and cement, its trade in coal and local crops, or its former associations with smuggling). Despite these rich associations, it is notable that Whitstable did not find a place in Daniell’s rival publication, and this also demonstrates how Turner overcame the challenges of representing a place that others clearly felt of limited visual appeal.
In his survey of the Southern Coast watercolours Eric Shanes suggested that, as well as documenting the different aspects of human toil involved in oyster farming, Turner introduced an allusive visual pun in the image, creating an approximation of an oyster amidst the blue and white cloths in the bottom right foreground. In his emphasis on oysters at Whitstable Turner was simply tapping the strong historic associations of the mollusc with this part of Kent, something he did on other occasions, including a humorous sketch of a young man flirting with an oyster-seller, which he labelled ‘The Bivalve Courtship’ (fig.2).
The published version of Whitstable was undertaken by John Horsburgh (1791-1869), a young Scottish engraver, who was relatively new to the pool of men who worked on Turner’s designs (fig.3). This was his only subject in the Southern Coast series, and he may have been taken on specifically to help speed the resolution of the project. His competence is suggested by the fact that, on this occasion, there are no surviving revised proofs to indicate Turner made significant changes to the image during the process. The artist was at the time also overseeing the production of the mezzotints for the Rivers of England, for which he also retouched the plates of his former friend, the late Thomas Girtin (1775-1802). This no doubt reminded Turner of Girtin’s ability to create memorable, extended highlights in his images, notably in a work widely known as ‘The White House at Chelsea’, where the mill is given greater emphasis because of the daring blankness of the white paper left for its reflection. This profoundly influential effect can be detected in Whitstable in the brilliant reflections of the dredger boats’ sails in the shallow waters on the left. Accordingly, a review in the Gentleman’s Magazine, praised especially the skilful perspective in the engraving and the ‘transparency of the water’.
Soon after Horsburgh’s work was completed and published the original watercolour was sold to the painter George Fennell Robson. As President of the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours in 1820, he had overturned the inclusion of works in oils in the society’s exhibitions, returning the institution to its original aim of promoting the art of watercolour. From 1826 he had a further opportunity of championing this distinctly native artform (as it was then considered). This arose when he was asked to commission around 100 works, generally measuring around 20 by 30 cms (8 by 12 inches), from the most prominent watercolour specialists to furnish what afterwards became a celebrated batch of three presentation albums. Robson’s task was actually a collaboration with the wife of property developer and merchant, George Haldimand. Born Sophia Charlotte Prinsep, she was a member of a prominent and well-connected family in the Anglo-Indian civil service. Like her talented siblings, she was able to paint in watercolour herself, and mixed in artistic circles.
In addition to Turner’s view of Whitstable, which Robson acquired ready-made from W.B. Cooke, the collection included newly-painted watercolours by William Mulready, James Ward, Samuel Prout, Richard Parkes Bonington, Peter de Wint , John Linnell, Antony Vandyke Copley Fielding, Edwin Landseer, David Cox and John Constable, the latter then not known for this kind of work.
The resulting albums were the pride of the Haldimand collection, displayed in the family home at 31 Belgrave Square on a specially designed table. Even after the sale of these volumes in 1861, following the death of Mrs Haldimand, they remained intact until acquired by the art dealer William Vokins in 1883. Although the entire contents of the albums were quickly sold on to a new collector, it was then decided to mount and frame each item singly, which resulted in an exhibition at the dealer’s gallery. This was featured as a remarkable event in several newspapers, including The Times, partly because it provided an unparalleled chance to see top quality examples by all the finest British watercolour artists of the early 19th century. Just as relevant was the excellent state of preservation of the works. Their colours remained as fresh as when first created because they had been exposed to so little daylight. Inevitably those by Turner, Cox and de Wint were cited as among the most notable in the collection. Another review, in the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, noted the exceptional condition of the drawings, before going on to single out the most choice examples: ‘Mr. Robson was particularly fortunate in his acquisition of a beautiful little Turner, a David Cox of rare excellence, and an early work of Landseer.’
The new owner of the collection was Stephenson Clarke, who belonged to the family behind Britain’s oldest shipping company, Stephenson Clarke Shipping. Once again the group of works assembled by Mrs Haldimand remained together as they passed down through successive generations of his family until 1980.
Independent Curator, 2016
1 William Daniell, Ramsgate (from A Voyage Round Great Britain), Aquatint on paper, 162 x 241 mm, Tate (T02948)
2 JMW Turner, Man talking to an Oyster Seller, c.1833-4, (from the Life Class (1) sketchbook), Pencil, 86 x 111 mm, Tate (D27378; TB CCLXXIX a 7)
3 John Horsburgh after JMW Turner, Whitstable (from Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England), 1826, 166 x 249 mm (image), Tate (T04426)
 See, for example, the ‘Wilson’ sketchbook: Tate, D01145, D01146 (TB XXXVII 28-29).
 See Thomas Lupton after Thomas Girtin, Chelsea Reach, looking towards Battersea, 1823 (i.e., Tate, T06431).
 Gentleman’s Magazine, vol.141, 1827, p.343.
 See http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/william-mulready-ra-1786-1863-the-sleeping-5318348-details.aspx
 See http://webapps.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index.php?oid=14253
 See http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/works-on-paper/watermark/item.aspx?tab=owner&item=WAG+2245&coll=4&mat=196&rdir=/walker/collections/works-on-paper/watermark/&page=5
 See http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/richard-parkes-bonington-1802-1828-old-man-4380872-details.aspx
 See http://www.clarkart.edu/Collection/8984