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Book Review: "Turner's Sketchbooks" by Ian Warrell

Updated on September 1, 2019
AdeleCosgroveBray profile image

Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet and artist who lives on the Wirral Peninsula in England.

4 stars for Turner's Sketchbooks by Ian Warrell

What's it About?

Just as the title implies, this book brings together a large collection of Joseph Mallord William Turner's sketches.

William Turner is famed the world over for his oil and watercolour paintings, many of which feature stormy seas and mountainous landscapes. More than anything he is renowned for his paintings of light - light bouncing off water, off clouds, off buildings - so that specific architectural or geographic details are veiled by his determination to capture the every-shifting qualities of light and shadow.

Turner was born in 1775 in London, England, and entered the Royal Academy of Arts when aged only 14. He also studied architectural drawing, which served him well later when he was able to earn a steady living from illustrating travel books, for example those by Sir Walter Scot.

He never married but had two daughters by his housekeeper. He was reputed to be an astute businessman, and in his sketchbooks he recorded payments received, bills due and sums owed. In one sketchbook, he even listed all the clothes he travelled with. Wherever Turner went, he took sketchbooks with him. Sketching seems to have been an almost daily habit for him.

Sketching Habit

An artist uses sketchbooks not just to draw whatever might catch their attention but to hone drawing skills and keep them sharp, to develop ideas for paintings, or to experiment with composition and to keep written notes. Sketches need not be perfect. They are not finished works of art. They show the mind of the artist at work.

Turner lived in the seaside town of Margate for much of his life but he was also very fond of Yorkshire, which he often revisited. His father lived with him for three decades and assisted him in his art studio.

When Turner died in 1851, aged 76, he left behind a huge number of sketchbooks containing pencil and watercolour sketches. These sketches had been created on location while travelling across Britain and various other European countries. He sketched habitually, and subjects range from people, ships, still life drawings of fish, to landscapes and buildings from the humble to the palatial.

He died having created more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 drawings - a vast output by any measure.

Turner's Sketchbooks aims to bring a careful selection of sketches together, and unsurprisingly the result is a large, heavy book generously filled with works dating from Turner's early years through to the end of his life.

About the Author

Ian Warrell is an independent curator of art, and currently the Senior Visiting Scholar for Collections Research at the Yale Center for British Art in America. He worked at the Tate Gallery for twenty-five years.

He has also written several other books about JMW Turner's paintings and sketches.

What's to Like?

There is some controversy over the completeness of the surviving collections of sketches, as while these seem extensive there is the very real possibility that some works were taken away soon after Turner's death. Some may have been taken by executors, family or by John Ruskin, who was a leading British art critic at that time, as well as a painter and writer on many subjects other than art.

Turner allowed almost no-one to view his sketchbooks. He was reputed to have been extremely unwilling to share their contents with anyone, even close friends and fellow artists. Some sketches were used to secure commissions, but others were intended to remain forever private, at least until after his death.

As someone who greatly admires Turner's later paintings, I was eager to explore his sketchbooks through this heavy, glossy book.

Turner's Sketchbooks begins with early works and methodically follows a logical path through the artist's life. This library of sketchbooks obviously provided Turner with an extensive source of material for paintings, but it also becomes quite apparent that he sketched purely for the love of it too.

The book is generous in the sheer quantity of work that it brings into the public eye. It is a genuine treat to view rapid character studies and architectural studies, and such a vast array of little sketches of such a wide variety of subjects, some done rapidly while others have been drawn with meticulous attention to detail.

What's Not to Like?

Unfortunately, many of the sketches reproduced in the book are almost impossible to clearly see. Some are reproduced no more than 9 cms wide by 5.5 cms high. Consequently, the reader looks upon small grey rectangles with very faint pencil marks.

Pencil can fade over time. Also, Turner had a habit of preparing paper with a grey wash to cut down the glare from white paper when he was sketching in sunny countries. Turner tended to use cheap art materials. It has been noted elsewhere that some of his oil paintings have suffered from colour deterioration.

His choice of paper could also be prone to discolouration. Today, most artists use only acid-free papers for this reason, but Turner seems to have purchased many of his sketchbooks without this consideration.

Consequently, many of his pencil sketches, as shown in this book, can hardly be seen - which rather undermines the whole point of the book.

As a result, this book felt a little disappointing to me. As much as I would have loved to be able to award the full Five Star rating, due to the poor reproduction of too many of Turner's sketches, I simply cannot.


The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:

  1. The author's LinkedIn profile;
  2. Turner's Sketchbook cover;
  3. The author's Amazon UK page.

Have you read Turner's Sketchbooks by Ian Worrell?

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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray


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