This picture is a product of Turner's journey to the west of England in summer 1811 and was exhibited at the artist's private gallery in 1812. Saltash is in Cornwall, across the Tamar River from Devonport and Plymouth. Ruskin described the painting in a letter of 1852 as "what the mind sees when it looks for poetry in humble actual life." The sky is damaged, but the lower half of the painting is well preserved.
The son of a London barber and wigmaker, Turner dominated English landscape and marine painting in the first half of the nineteenth century. He studied in the Royal Academy schools from 1789 and first showed a painting at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1796; he was elected an academician in 1802 and continued to exhibit until 1850. He travelled widely on the continent—Venice, Switzerland, the Rhine—and in England and Wales, making sketches and watercolors that he used later for paintings and published as engravings. After Turner’s death in 1851, the contents of his studio became the property of the nation. The Turner Bequest to the Tate Museum in London (now Tate Britain) includes approximately 30,000 drawings and watercolors, 280 sketchbooks, and 300 oil paintings.
A strategically located Cornish market town on the west bank of Plymouth Sound, near the mouth of the Tamar River and inland from Plymouth and Devonport, Saltash lies at a ferry crossing connecting two ancient roadways. Plymouth has been the home of a royal dockyard and naval station since the late seventeenth century.
Turner’s painting was first shown at his own London gallery in May 1812. Exhibited for sale, it was among recent works mentioned in the June 9 edition of the Sun as resulting from the artist’s tour in Devon and Cornwall the previous summer. A quick pencil drawing of the buildings with figures in the foreground is on page 62 verso of the first Devonshire Coast Sketchbook (Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, London).
As is often remarked, the subject here is an ordinary one. Ruskin, writing in 1852, called it "what the mind sees when it looks for poetry in humble actual life": "the weather is hot—& everything is dirty—and the sunshine glowing." For Finberg (1939), the thematic material is "devoid of classical or historical allusions, and . . . practically free from topographical interest." The components are some ramshackle buildings, a passage and a roadway into the town, a muddy beach inhabited by a quantity of people and half a dozen packhorses, and several boats drawn up to the waterline. To the left of the passage a soldier stands guard, and on the wall of a building in the foreground is a famous phrase from Nelson’s 1805 signal to the fleet at Trafalgar, reminders of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. In addition to being ordinary, this is neither a maritime subject nor a pastoral one, which makes it quite atypical for Turner.
At the suggestion of Evelyn Joll, the painting was cleaned by John Brealey in 1980, and, excluding the sky, it is generally in quite good state for a work by this artist.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Inscription: Inscribed: (right foreground, on building) SALTAS[H] / ENGLAND / EXPECT[S] EV[ERY] / [MAN TO DO HIS DUTY] (after Nelson's signal to the fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar); (middle ground, on building) BEER
the artist (until at least 1846); Joseph Hogarth, London (until 1851; Royal Gallery of British Art sale, Christie's, London, June 13, 1851, no. 50*, as "Saltash, Devon", for £346.10.0 to Bicknell); Elhanan Bicknell, Herne Hill, Surrey (1851); John Miller, Liverpool (1851–after 1858; his sale, Christie's, London, May 22, 1858, no. 249, for £430 to Gambart for Miller); his daughter, Maria C. Miller (by 1868–87; sold for 3,000 gns. through Charles W. Deschamps to Marquand); Henry G. Marquand, New York (1887–89)
London. Turner's Gallery. May 11–June 6, 1812 (as "Saltash with the Water Ferry") [see Finberg 1939].
Dublin. Royal Hibernian Academy. 1846, no. 106 (as "Saltash, Devon").
Edinburgh. Royal Scottish Academy. "27th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy," February 12–May 7, 1853, no. 72 (lent by John Miller).
Manchester. Art Treasures Palace. "Art Treasures of the United Kingdom," May 5–October 17, 1857, no. 239 (as "Saltash," lent by John Miller).
Leeds City Museum. "National Exhibition of Works of Art," 1868, no. 1155 (lent by Miss Miller).
Liverpool Art Club. "Loan Collection of Oil Paintings by British Artists Born Before 1801," October 1881, no. 160 (lent by Miss Miller).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1885, no. 54 (as "Saltash, Devon," lent by Miss Maria C. Miller).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Exhibition of 1888–89," 1888–89, no. 12 (as "Saltash").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Temporary Exhibition," April 1906, no. 36.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Paintings, Drawings and Prints by J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, R. P. Bonington," March 21–April 28, 1946, no. 5.
Art Gallery of Toronto. "Paintings by J. M. W. Turner," October 12–November 18, 1951, no. 6.
Ottawa. National Gallery of Canada. "Paintings by J. M. W. Turner," December 6, 1951–January 2, 1952, no. 6.
Winnipeg Art Gallery. "Paintings by J. M. W. Turner," January 6–27, 1952, no. 6.
Iowa City. University of Iowa Gallery of Art. "Impressionism and Its Roots," November 8–December 6, 1964, no. 8.
Essen. Museum Folkwang. "William Turner: Licht und Farbe," September 15, 2001–January 6, 2002, no. 70.
Kunsthaus Zürich. "William Turner: Licht und Farbe," February 1–May 26, 2002, no. 70.
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "J. M. W. Turner," October 1, 2007–January 6, 2008, no. 37.
Dallas Museum of Art. "J. M. W. Turner," February 10–May 18, 2008, no. 37.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "J. M. W. Turner," June 24–September 21, 2008, no. 37.
John Taylor. Sun (June 9, 1812) [see Ref. Finberg 1939], mentions among Turner's new works "Saltash with the Water Ferry".
John Burnet and Peter Cunningham. Turner and His Works. London, 1852, pp. 58, 104, pl. 5, call it the companion to "The Mill".
John Ruskin. Letter to Francis McCracken. November 22, 1852, writes that "the Salt Ash is what the mind sees when it looks for poetry in humble actual life".
Tom Taylor. A Handbook to the Gallery of British Paintings in the Art Treasures Exhibition. London, 1857, p. 63, as "of the first period, painted probably between 1805 and 1810".
John Cassell's Art Treasures Exhibition: Containing Engravings of the Principal Masterpieces. London, , p. 97.
W. Bürger [Théophile Thoré]. Trésors d'art en Angleterre. Brussels, 1860, p. 425.
Walter Thornbury. The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. London, 1862, vol. 1, p. 290; vol. 2, p. 402, as "merely a landing-place and shed . . . steeped in a Cuyp-like afternoon sunshine".
Walter Thornbury. The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. New York, 1877, pp. 427–28.
Athenæum (February 7, 1885), calls it "Turner's famous picture of Saltash, a masterpiece of intense sunlight"; as the work engraved in "The Southern Coast".
Portfolio (February 1885), as "a study of buildings, wharfage, and boats on the Tamar, with rising river-bank . . . wrapped in gradations of soft haze".
Spectator (March 5, 1885), as "a tavern and some watermen, and a little pool of muddy water . . . and the result is as purely lovely as if the scene chosen had been amongst the orange groves of Sicily, or beneath the shadows of the Parthenon".
Charles W. Deschamps. Letter to Henry G. Marquand. November 22, 1886, offers it for £3,000, from the collection of Miss Miller and with the recommendation of Frederic Leighton.
"Louvre of Nations." New York Times (September 17, 1898), p. RBA618, dates it about 1813 and states that it was purchased by John Miller in 1851 for 300 guineas.
Arthur Hoeber. The Treasures of The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. New York, 1899, p. 70, as "Saltash".
Walter Armstrong. Turner. London, 1902, p. 228.
Masters in Art: Turner 3 (November 1902), p. 39.
W. L. Wyllie. J. M. W. Turner. London, 1905, p. 39.
P[ercy]. M[oore]. Turner. "Pictures of the English School in New York." Burlington Magazine 22 (February 1913), p. 270, pl. IIIG, describes its "suffused sunlight and exquisite placidity" and calls it "a landmark in English landscape art".
Harry Townend. J. M. W. Turner, 1775–1851. London, 1923, p. 35.
C. H. Collins Baker. British Painting. London, 1933, p. 287.
A. J. Finberg. The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. Oxford, 1939, pp. 190–91, 474, no. 173, p. 510, no. 579, mentions it among five of six new works listed in the Sun that were evidently the outcome of Turner's 1811 tour in Devonshire and Cornwall, describing them as "devoid of classical . . . allusions, and . . . practically free from topographical interest".
Denys Sutton, ed. Letters of Roger Fry. New York, 1972, vol. 1, p. 255 n. 1.
Andrew Wilton. Turner in the British Museum: Drawings and Watercolours. Exh. cat., British Museum. London, 1975, p. 63.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner. New Haven, 1977, vol. 1, pp. 76–77, 237, no. 121; vol. 2, pl. 109, point out that it cannot have been the companion to "Windmill and Lock", which was exhibited in 1810.
Jerrold Ziff. "Review of Butlin and Joll." Art Bulletin 62 (March 1980), p. 169, notes that there is a preliminary sketch, T. B. CXXIII, 62v.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner. rev. ed. New Haven, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 85–86, 262, no.121; vol. 2, pl. 125, describe Deschamps's letter, mention the drawing discovered by Ziff, and note that the picture had recently been cleaned and is on exhibition.
John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, p. 231.
Peter Bicknell and Helen Guiterman. "The Turner Collector: Elhanan Bicknell." Turner Studies: His Art & Epoch 1775–1851 7 (Summer 1987), p. 38.
James Hamilton. Turner: A Life. London, 1997, pp. 151–52.
Andrew Wilton. William Turner: Licht und Farbe. Exh. cat., Museum Folkwang, Essen. Cologne, 2001, pp. 140, 308, no. 70, ill. (color).
Evelyn Joll inThe Oxford Companion to J. M. W. Turner. Ed. Evelyn Joll et al. Oxford, 2001, pp. 24, 187.
Elizabeth A. Pergam. "From Manchester to Manhattan: The Transatlantic Art Trade After 1857." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 87, no. 2 (2005), pp. 67–68, 87–88.
Nicola Moorby inJ. M. W. Turner. Ed. Ian Warrell. Exh. cat., Washington National Gallery of Art. London, 2007, pp. 69, 254, no. 37, ill. (color).
Andrew Loukes inJ. M. W. Turner. Ed. Ian Warrell. Exh. cat., Washington National Gallery of Art. London, 2007, pp. 75, 96.
Ian Warrell inJ. M. W. Turner. Ed. Ian Warrell. Exh. cat., Washington National Gallery of Art. London, 2007, p. 82.
Franklin Kelly inJ. M. W. Turner. Ed. Ian Warrell. Exh. cat., Washington National Gallery of Art. London, 2007, p. 242.
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 228–30, no. 112, ill. (color).
Alison Hokanson. "Turner's Whaling Pictures." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 73 (Spring 2016), pp. 26–27, 45, fig. 27 (color).