Published: 3 Nov 2017, 11:54 a.m. Revised: 3 Nov 2017, 3:44 p.m.
Author: CVH

Turner produced a mass of drawings and paintings for the elite clientele.  However he learnt early the value of making his work more widely available through prints created from his work.  He forced his engravers to progressively higher standards, technically and aesthetically. Over his lifetime around 900 prints were made from his works, setting standards which have never been surpassed.  The importance and value of Turner’s work is increasingly recognised and lauded. Although much attention has been directed to his paintings, oil and watercolour, Turner controlled the techniques and outputs of the printing process of these impressions just as intensively.

The currently used catalogue {Rawlinson, 1908 #7913}{Rawlinson, 1913 #7914} of 863 prints is 100 years old, and even then was defective. He threw in the towel after 40 years work on the subject, making clear that it was not possible in time or the resources available to document all the differences he had observed. Many of the collections to which he then had easy access have been scattered around the world. Finberg {1929} considerably revised Rawlinson’s description of one set of 30 prints (Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England) with access over many years to major collections. A hundred years of disparate research has improved understanding, but that has not been collated, nor are there cost effective tools available.

The usual structure of such a catalogue is to describe the “states” of the impressions as printed from the successively modified printing plate.  The normal practice is to use verbal descriptions of the changes (deliberate and accidental) occurring to the plate as recorded in the printed impressions.  This relies on an observer accurately observing and describing differences between impressions.  In turn, this requires that the two impressions be placed side by side and compared line by (often microscopic) line.  This is frequently not possible when the impressions cannot be brought together physically.  Turner’s prints were printed on paper (or sometimes vellum) from copper and steel plates etched and engraved by himself and many others.  Few of these plates have survived.  Turner was notorious for obsessive modification of the plates, with some plates going through upwards of 6 states before publication, with more after.

The process of printing involves humidifying the paper to ease the transfer of ink, then drying the impression, resulting in differential swelling and shrinkage which is different between different printings, papers and subsequent environmental conditions.  Since their printing, many impressions have undergone mechanical damage, staining, or modification such as colouring. This makes comparisons somewhat more difficult.


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