In the present work, Turner has positioned himself in the mouth of the river Medina, on the north coast of the Isle of Wight, which itself is separated from the English mainland by a stretch of water known as the Solent. He looks west, across to the famous village of West Cowes, with its busy harbour and its church, St. Mary’s, silhouetted against the skyline.
It is summer, and the end of what has clearly been a beautiful day. The sun has dropped below the horizon, but its last rays flood the scene with a golden light. Above, the sky is inky blue and Turner’s inclusion of a silvery crescent moon leads one to speculate if he had in mind the famous line from Byron’s Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, ‘the moon is up but it is not yet night.’
There is not a breath of wind and there is an overriding sense of tranquility. The anchorage is populated by a number of large ships, both civilian and military, which appear still and stately in the twilight. In the foreground, six strong oarsmen transport a pair of uniformed officers in a ‘captain’s gig’, away from the man-of-war on the right. One of the officers looks back at the ship and, waving his arm, appears to issue last minute instructions to the seaman who, having climbed onto the main yard arm, is in the process of unfurling a sail.
Turner painted this watercolour for his celebrated series Picturesque Views in England and Wales, an ambitious project in which he collaborated with the engraver-cum-publisher Charles Heath (1785-1848) in the 1820s and 1830s. The pair had known each other for almost fifteen years when, in February of 1825, Heath wrote excitedly to a friend ‘I have just begun a most splendid work [with] Turner the Academician. He is making me 120 Drawings of England and Wales – I have got four and they are the finest things I ever saw… I mean to have them engraved by all the first artists.’3 The publication was to be produced in parts and the first tranche was ready by March 1827. West Cowes, Isle of Wight was engraved and published in March 1830 by Richard Wallis and included in the fifth volume of the series.
In the summer of 1833, Heath organized an exhibition of sixty-six watercolours from the series, including the present work, at the Moon, Boys and Graves Gallery at 6 Pall Mall, London. After an evening soirée at the gallery, The Times reported that ‘two hundred artists and literati’4 had been present and it was also noted that ‘Turner himself was there, his coarse, stout person, heavy look and homely manners contrasting strangely with the marvelous beauty and grace of the surrounding creations of his pencil.’5 Despite the critical success of the exhibition, the engravings were unprofitable for Heath. By 1836 he had decided to reduce the number of prints to ninety-six and in 1838, the project was abandoned all together.
Turner knew the Isle of Wight well and over time he built up a number of friendships with people connected with the island. His first visit took place in 1795, when he was just twenty years of age. He stayed for about a week and recorded in his sketch-books the churches, castles and other sites that interested him. He certainly visited Cowes, as the following year, he painted West Cowes Castle, a watercolour that is now held at Tate Britain in London.6
His second visit to the island took place in the summer of 1826, the year of the first Cowes Regatta. Although drawings in his Gosport and Isle of Wight Sketchbook would seem to indicate that he witnessed this, Ian Warrell has suggested that, for the majority of the trip, Turner stayed near Niton on the southern coast, with his friends Colonel James Willoughby Gordon (1772-1851) and his wife Lady Juliette Gordon (1797-1867).7
The following July and August he was on the island again, this time staying at East Cowes Castle as a guest of the celebrated architect John Nash and his sociable wife Mary-Anne. Here, although he was part of a large house party, he was still able to find time to draw and explore the region. During the regatta itself, he made over forty rapid drawings of the races and these were later translated into two oil paintings of the subject that he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828. His Cowes Regatta Sketchbook (Turner Bequest, Tate, Britain) also included two pencil drawings which, it would seem, contain the preliminary information for the present watercolour. Both are taken from the same low view-point, and while the first sheet shows St Mary’s Church and the coast to the left, the second incorporates a wider prospect.8
In West Cowes, Isle of Wight, Turner is working at the very height of his creative powers and the watercolour demonstrates the dazzling effects and techniques that he had perfected by the late 1820s. Although the composition is highly sophisticated, he seems to have worked at some speed. It is remarkable to witness how he handles with such confidence, elements as diverse as the detailed rigging of the ships, the haze of the distant north coast on the right, or the abstract patterns that have formed on the glass-like water and which is, itself, made up of a myriad of different colours. There is little wonder that many consider Turner's 'vision' to have anticipated the French Impressionists of the second half of the nineteenth century.
The present work work has a particularly interesting and full provenance. After the publication of its engraving in 1830 Charles Heath sold the watercolour to Thomas Tomkison (1764-1853), a successful piano maker, who had known Turner since their boyhood in Covent Garden.9 According to the original catalogue of the 1833, Moon, Boys and Graves Gallery exhibition, alongside West Cowes, Isle of Wight, Tomkinson [sic] also owned another four watercolours from the England and Wales series.10
The work then passed to John Heywood Hawkins (1803-1870), a passionate collector of engravings, drawings and watercolours. He descended from an old Cornish family but lived between Bignor Park on the Sussex Downs and Suffolk Street, off Pall Mall in London. He was a politician and for nine years, between 1832 and 1841, he served as Member of Parliament for Newport on the Isle of Wight.
At Hawkins’ sale at Sotheby’s in 1850, West Cowes, Isle of Wight was acquired by William Leech, whose family were successful cotton manufacturers from near to Manchester.11 Leech and his wife lived in Kensington Gardens, where they kept a fine collection of pictures, including five other watercolours by Turner.
The next owner was Edward Atkinson (1839-1911), a bachelor whose income derived from the family scent and soup business. Known as ‘Atky’, he lived at ‘Rosebanks’, a beautiful house on the Fowey estuary in Cornwall, where access to his bedroom was only possible via a rope-ladder! He was a great friend of the author Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932), and it is thought that he provided the inspiration for ‘Ratty’ in Grahame’s classical children’s novel, The Wind in the Willows (1908). Upon Atkinson's death in 1911, Grahame wrote ‘I loved Atky… perhaps in a selfish way, first of all because his special passions appealed to me, boats, Bohemianism, Burgundy, tramps, travel, books and pictures, but also [because] of his unfailing good humour and his big, kind heart.’12
West Cowes, Isle of Wight next entered the collection of William Yates (1861-1912) who, like Edward Atkinson, had a great interest in boats and the sea. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, he successfully managed Messrs. Yates and Thom, an engineering firm that had been established by his grandfather. Later in life, he lived at Shepperton-on-Thames, Berkshire, in a house that overlooked the river. According to his obituary, ‘his residence was beautifully furnished and contained many artistic treasures’. Furthermore, ‘being a member of the Thames Yacht Club… he was known locally as a keen ‘yachtsman.’13
Turner’s West Cowes, Isle of Wight remained with Yates’ descendants until 1967 and the following year, it was acquired from Agnew’s by the father of the present owner. The work has remained in that family collection for precisely fifty years and it was last seen in public in the winter of 2000/2001, when it was included in the Royal Academy’s landmark exhibition: Turner, The Great Watercolours.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell and Neil Jeffares for their help when cataloguing this work.
1. C. Riding and R. Johns, Turner and the Sea, London 2014, p. 134
2. Ibid, p. 11
3. E. Shanes, op. cit, 1983, p. 13
4. Ibid., p. 16
6. Tate, Britain, inv. no. TB XXXVII f
7. Tate, Britain, Gosport and Isle of Wight Sketchbook, inv. nos TB CCVII & TB CCXXVII
8. Tate, Britain, Cowes Regatta Sketchbook, inv. nos. TB CCXXVI 40a & TB CCVII 21
9. The spelling of the name Tomkison varies throughout the literature. Sometimes it is spelt: Tomkison, on other occasions: Tomkinson and on others: Tomiknson
10. E. Shanes, op. cit., 1983, p. 157
11. William Leech’s parents; John and Jane Leech lived at Grose Hall, Stalybridge, Cheshire, from where they ran the family’s cotton mill operations. In 1866, William became the uncle of the author Beatrix Potter (1866-1843)
12. K. Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Oxford 1983, p. 148
13. The World's Paper Trade Review, vol. 58, London 1912, p. 283
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