by J.H. Kermit for Picturesque Views in England and Wales, 1830
The watercolour dates to circa 1828 and shows Turner working at his most energetic and fluid. He has positioned himself on the beach at St. Mawes, a harbour village on the south coast of Cornwall. It is high summer and late afternoon, the shadows are long and the scene is flooded with a golden light. He looks west, towards the mouth of the Falmouth estuary, which is guarded by the imposing Tudor structures of Pendennis Castle on the left and St. Mawes Castle on the right.
Despite this dramatic setting, the real action takes place in the foreground, where Turner - with extraordinary dexterity - has brought to life the pilchard industry, which, in the summer months, was of vital importance to the local economy. The beach is awash with piles of fish, whose bluey-silvery scales glisten in the warm sunlight. Turner has packed the scene with a multitude of men, women and children, each of whom are full of individuality and character. While some simply observe the scene, smoking clay pipes or enjoying the warm sunshine, most are engaged in the frenetic activity of washing, sorting, salting and packing the precious commodity. On the left a ‘lugger’ is already heavily laden with barrels, which are destined for the merchant brig that is anchored just off shore.
Turner, who was a keen fisherman himself, seems to have particularly relished conjuring up this scene and he has deployed the full range of his painterly techniques in order to capture the bustling atmosphere. He has clearly worked at some speed, and yet he also exhibits a masterful control of the medium. Of particular note is his rendering of the different materials, textures and surfaces that the subject presents. While, for example, the rose-coloured hues of the castles and hillsides are largely made up of broad watercolour washes, the heaps of slippery fish are conceived through a combination of vigorous scratches and flicks of dry pigment.
Turner visited St. Mawes in 1811 as part of his wide-ranging tour of the West Country. He left London in the middle of July and travelled through Hampshire and Wiltshire, before heading for the Dorset coast. From there he journeyed west into Devon and upon reaching the busy seaport of Plymouth, he paused for a week. Well rested, he then continued on into Cornwall and soon found himself first at St. Mawes and then in neighbouring Falmouth, where he stayed for three nights. After reaching Land’s End, he turned for home and, having traversed the north coasts of both Cornwall and then Devon, he was back in London by mid-September. St. Mawes and its people evidently played on his mind as, in 1812, he exhibited an oil painting of the subject at the Royal Academy and then, just over a decade later, in circa 1823, he painted a watercolour, from a different view-point to the present work, in which he showed the pilchard fishermen in harder times.1
The present watercolour was engraved in 1830 and the print was included in Charles Heath’s and Turner’s joint publishing project which became known as the Picturesque Views in England and Wales Series (for more information on this important group of watercolours, please see lot 201).
By 1908, the watercolour had left England for America and entered the legendary collection of William Andrews Clark. Born in Pennsylvania, in humble circumstances, Clark was to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States. He had interests in, amongst others activities gold-mining, railroads, newspapers and copper and in 1899 he was elected a Senator. Alongside his business and political interests, he formed one of the great collections of fine and decorative arts and upon his death he bequeathed over two hundred works of art to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The present work has descended within Clarke’s family until today, and it has not been seen in public since the beginning of the twentieth century.
1. The oil painting is entitled St. Mawes at the Pilchard Season and is held at Tate Britain, while the watercolour, St. Mawes, Cornwall, resides at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
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