Spithead: Two Captured Danish Ships Entering Portsmouth Harbour by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). 1807-9. Oil on canvas, 1714 x 2337 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain (Accession no. NO0481. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.) Click on image to enlarge it.

Commentary from Tate Britain Online (2004)

Turner was as much a marine painter as a landscape artist; this is one of his history paintings set at sea. In 1807 he went to Portsmouth to see the arrival of two captured Danish ships and make sketches upon which this painting was based. The original title (as above) referred to this event. By the time the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809, political outcry against the operation was such that he felt it advisable to change the title to ‘Boat’s crew recovering an anchor’.

‘Described, almost certainly by John Landseer, in the Review of Publications of Art 1808 as ‘a larger picture [than that of ‘Runic superstitions’, No. 79 [N00464]] of two of the DANISH SHIPS which were seized at COPENHAGEN, entering Portsmouth Harbour, where Mr. Turner again displays with his powers as a painter, his great and various knowledge, and talent for marine composition’. The Danish fleet had surrendered on 7 September 1807 and on 14 October the first detachment set sail for England with an English escort. Turner went especially to Portsmouth to witness the arrival of the squadron, but unfortunately it was dispersed by bad weather, some ships arriving on 30 October, others on 1 November. Turner shows the two ships that arrived on the latter date, the Three Crowns and the Denmark. There are a number of on-the-spot drawings in the ‘Spithead’ sketchbook (C-1 to 18, 27 to 30).

By 1809, when the picture was exhibited at the R.A., there was such a political outcry against the Danish operation that Turner seems to have thought it expedient to change the title of the picture to ‘Spithead: Boat's crew recovering an anchor’. Nobody seems to have noticed the original subject, or the Danish flags flown below the English as a sign of submission, and indeed Robert Hunt, writing in the Examiner, referred to the ships as being English (Finberg 1961, p. 159, gives the date of the review as June 1809, but it cannot now be traced). In 1810 the picture was exhibited once again at Turner's gallery as ‘Spithead’. On this last occasion it aroused no critical interest in the press, but in 1809 it was generally praised by ‘Anthony Pasquin’ (John Williams): ‘This is one of the most perfect performances in the Exhibition, and in every point of view worthy of the Artist who traced it ... Mr. Turner appears to have taken Backhysen as his model; at any rate, his manner, if not imitative of that great naval painter, possesses a similar direction both in composition and colouring. When Mr. Turner first became noticeable for his talents, he seemed more desirous of surprising us, by his bold eccentricities, than of pleasing us by the chastity of his arrangements ... but he now seems disposed to reform those excesses and flights of imagination, and fall back, like a true soldier, into the ranks of reason. We cannot dismiss this subject without observing that the transparency of the water, in this view, is beautifully managed; and Mr. Turner may become, if he pleases, the first marine painter in the world; he has more correctness, though less brilliancy, than Vernet, and appears to regard nature with an eye so keenly inquisitorial, that his representations must be valuable, provided that his fancy is not permitted to neutralize the effort’ (Morning Herald, 4 May 1809). On the other hand Farington, dining with Mr Augustus Phipps on 30 April 1809 recorded Mrs Phipps' opinion: ‘The water in His [Turner's] large sea piece she thought not like water, not liquid, and in all His pictures there is a want of finishing.’

See Tate Britain Online for full catalogue entry, including provenance, exhibition history, critical reception, and bibliography.

Last modified 16 May 2016