J.M.W. TURNER R.A.
Spink & Sons, 1962;
Private Collection, United Kingdom
This watercolour, formerly identified as The Old Castle, Heidelberg, has recently been re-identified by Ian Warrell as Dover Castle. Careful analysis by Peter Bower has demonstrated that this sheet comes from a sketchbook used by Turner c.1845, which was broken up either shortly before his death or shortly afterwards.; he has so far been able to identify six other sheets from the same sketchbook (see his Note, p.67-68), most of which are studies of sea and sky, probably made along the coast between Margate and Brighton, an area where Turner spent a good deal of time in his later years.
As the chief port of travel to the Continent, Turner visited Dover throughout his life. But he was also well aware of the strategic role played over the centuries by the fortified castle and the cliffs that form a natural line of defence. Dover featured in several of Turner’s topographical watercolours, including Dover Castle, 1822 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Dover from Shakespeare’s Cliff, c.1825 (Private Collection, USA), made for Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England, a defiantly patriotic work, in which the guns of the modern fort (constructed to repel, a possible invasion by Napoleon) fire towards France, presided over by the fortifications of the mediaeval castle. In this late study, however, Turner has no interest in the details of topography; there is a sense of urgency, almost of obsession, as he seems to attack the sheet of paper with rapid sweeps, and jabs of thin watercolour, swept over broad pencil indications. From a dark foreground, the eye is led across the harbour and towards the castle, silhouetted against a patch of sunlight in the stormy sky.
This was a study made by Turner for its own sake; throughout his life, he was a compulsive recorder of all he saw around him, as the sheer number of surviving sketchbooks makes clear. Here he is concerned with the capture of fleeting natural phenomena. Few artists have matched Turner’s versatility in his use of watercolour and range of technique.