"Vividly natural and effective. It can hardly be too much admired". These words from La Belle Assembleé reflected the enthusiasm which greeted this magnificent picture when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831. Turner had always shown an instinctive understanding of the sea, and Fort Vimieux with its vivid colours, which are typical of his work after his first two journeys to Italy, bring to mind such masterpieces as The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery) completed seven years later. Indeed it is interesting to note that Fort Vimieux later belonged to the celebrated American collector James Lenox, the first American owner of any works by Turner, who had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the artist to sell him the Fighting Temeraire for any price which he might name.
When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831 Fort Vimieux had no specific title in the catalogue, rather it was accompanied by a lengthy quotation:
"In this arduous service (of Reconnaissance) on the French coast, 1805, one of our cruisers took the ground, and had to sustain the attack of the Flying Artillery along shore, the Batteries, and the Fort of Vimieux which fired heated shot, until she could warp off at the rising tide which set in with all the appearance of a stormy night".
Turner is referring to an action off Vimereux (now called Wimereux), a short distance up the coast from Boulogne. During 1804 and 1805, Napoleon had gathered together a formidable invasion flotilla which, in July 1805, consisted of 1337 armed and 154 unarmed vessels. These were made up of six grand divisions, and the fourth, commanded by Captain Daugier, occupied the port of Vimereux. During this period, the British fleet was involved in numerous small actions as attempts were made to tempt the French ships to venture out beyond the range of the batteries along the coast. One such action close to Vimereux, on 18th July 1805, involved a squadron including the Immortalité, the Hebe and the Arab. In 1829 Turner sketched the coastline and the fort in a pen and ink study which appears on p. 17 of sketchbook CCLX in the Turner bequest, where it is clearly inscribed 'Vimereux' (see fig.1). He probably went there when he was gathering material for his ambitious scheme to illustrate the scenery of the ‘Great Rivers of Europe’ (a project which was eventually limited to French Rivers).
The noble vessel is depicted by Turner lying on its side having run aground off the coast. She has been well secured by two anchors, one in the foreground and one on the distant beach to the right. The sea is calm, and the bright red setting sun lights sky, sea and the wet sand with a fierce flame. The ship is in a very precarious position, being fired on both from the fort in the far distance and from the shore batteries from which the view is taken. Two shots from the latter have fallen short and can be seen in the foreground, whilst another shot from the distant fort has hit the boat on its port side. Smoke from the shots can be seen above the horizon. On the promentory to the left, figures have gathered to watch the incident. The situation has been desperate, but the worst is now over as the light will soon go, thereby shielding the ship from further bombardment, and the tide will quickly rush in allowing the boat to slip away to safety.
The success of Fort Vimieux results from Turner’s lifelong understanding of the sea. He was born close to both the sight and sound of the river Thames, and when a child of eleven, was sent to stay on the coast at Margate. His love of the sea at Margate was to remain with him all his life, and he continued to paint there until his death. His first exhibited oil painting was a marine subject, Fishermen at Sea (Tate Gallery), the first engraving after one of his pictures was a marine subject, The Shipwreck and his first major commission for a painting was The Bridgewater Seapiece (private collection), one of his greatest early marine compositions. He was a keen sailor and a keen fisherman, and his sketchbooks contain numerous examples of his fascination with the sea. His personal experiences of the dangers of the sea certainly helped to sharpen his observation – a famous early example was in 1802 when he visited France and whilst landing at Calais his boat was nearly swamped. Although the famous Calais Pier (National Gallery) does not directly relate to this experience, it certainly contributed to the vivid depiction of an elemental and uncontrollable sea. It is no surprise to find that of his later works, from the mid 1820’s until his death in 1851, there were more sea subjects than any other.
Fort Vimieux is part of a group of paintings in which Turner reacted to Britain’s struggle against the French in the Napoleonic Wars. As an inhabitant of an island and as a passionate seafarer, he could hardly have been unmoved by Nelson’s triumph and death at Trafalgar. He made a special trip to sketch the Victory as she entered the Medway, and made detailed sketches on board the ship. Shortly afterwards he painted Battle of Trafalgar (Tate Gallery) as well as The Victory returning from Trafalgar (Yale Center for British Art), and returned to the subject in 1823 with the enormous picture commissioned by the Prince of Wales (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). He painted The Field of Waterloo (Tate Gallery) in 1818, and his 1842 Royal Academy exhibit entitled War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (Tate Gallery) included the figure of Napoleon in exile on St. Helena.
However, whilst the subject partly reflects Britain’s gallant efforts to forestall a French invasion, the inspiration for the composition of Fort Vimieux is probably that of Bonington, an artist much admired by Turner. Bonington had died in 1828 and his studio sale had taken place in London in June 1829. This sale included several Calais beach scenes and in 1830 Turner exhibited Calais Sands (Bury Art Gallery - see fig.2) at the Royal Academy, a painting which deliberately repeats a subject of which Bonington was an accepted master. Calais Sands and Fort Vimieux are the same size and both paintings draw inspiration from Turner’s appreciation of Bonington’s genius, though both also include the very Turnerian touch of a fiery sunset. Another painting which relates closely to the composition of Fort Vimieux is A Ship Aground of c.1828 (Tate Gallery - fig.3), where a man of war lies on its side in the light of the setting sun, though the picture lacks the drama of the later work.
Fort Vimieux remained in the artist’s possession until about 1845 when it was acquired by Charles Meigh of Grove House in Shelton, Staffordshire. Meigh was the grandson of a successful Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, and successfully ran the business himself, overseeing the Company’s display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. He was said to have a large and valuable collection which included works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Wright of Derby, West, Constable and many Victorian artists. He also owned three watercolours by Turner - Maecena's Villa, View of Magdalen College and View of Box Hill, Surrey. The pictures were displayed in a private gallery attached to his house, "one of the largest and best private collections of pictures in the country" (Art Union, December 1845, p.367). In 1850 Fort Vimieux was sold, as part of a two day sale devoted to Meigh's collection, to the remarkable Colonel James Lenox, a strict Presbyterian who was heir to one of New York’s great real-estate fortunes. Lenox lived at 53 Fifth Avenue and his celebrated book collection was housed in a specially built house on Fifth Avenue, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, which eventually merged with the Astor Library to become the main branch of the New York Public Library. In 1845 Lenox had acquired, directly from the artist , Turner's Staffa, Fingals Cave (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), which became the first work by Turner to go to America. A few years later, Lenox tried to persuade Turner to sell him The Fighting Temeraire but without success. Lenox gave all his collection to the trust which owned his library, and this became the New York Public Library. The present owner’s father bought the picture at the Library’s sale in 1956.
Turner’s contemporaries were rapturous in their praise of Fort Vimieux. The words of the critic of La Belle Assembleé have been cited above, and The Spectator of 7th May considered that both Turner’s coast scenes were ‘replete with beauty’. The most appreciative critic was in the Library of the Fine Arts (i, no-5, p.419):
"the firing of red-hot shot, the sun of a bloody hue "low deep and wan", the forlorn and frightened gull, the ball hissing in the water, and the stranded ship, present a vivid picture of the event, while the imagination of the ensemble is grand and stupendous. When will Mr Turner show symptoms of decay?… his genius is still green as when we first saw it in the boyhood of our life".
Oil on canvas
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Royal Academy, 1831, no. 406;
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, An Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Prints by J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, R.P.Bonington, March-April, 1946, no.9;
Toronto Art Gallery, Ottawa, National Gallery, Paintings by J.M.W. Turner, October-December, 1951, no.19;
Indianapolis, John Herron Art Museum, Turner in America, November-December, 1955, no.31;
Tate Gallery and Royal Academy, Turner 1775-1851 , November 1974-March 1975, no. 510 (illus);
Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd. English Pictures from Suffolk Collections. February- March 1980, no. 42 (illus);
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Turner, 1996 no.15
71 by 112 cm., 28 by 44 in.
Charles, Meigh, A Critical and Descriptive Catalogue of a Collection of Pictures at Grove House, Shelton, 1847, p.39, no.133;
J. Burnet, Turner and his Works, 1852 and P. Cunningham, 'The Memoir' contained in it, 1852, p.116, no. 164;
W.Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1862, vol.ii, p.243;
W.Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 2nd ed., 1877, pp. 338, 576;
C.F. Bell, A List of the Works contributed to Public Exhibitions by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1901, pp. 117-18, no 176;
Sir W.Armstrong, Turner, 1902, p.222;
Catalogue of the Paintings in the Picture Galleries of the New York Public Library, 1941, p.6, no. 8;
J. Evans and J.H. Whitehouse (eds.), The Diaries of John Ruskin, 1835-1847, 1956, p.263;
A.J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1963, (2nd ed. of 1939 work revised by H.F.Finberg), pp. 326, 406, 421, 491, no.362;
J. Rothenstein and M. Butlin, Turner, 1964, p.46 (illus pl. XIII);
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, 1979, p.195, illus pl.210 and p. 279, no. P341;
E.Joll and M. Butlin, L'Opera Completa di Turner, 1982, no. 345, illus.
M.Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W.Turner, rev. ed., 1984, Text Volume pp. 192-3, no. 341, Plates Volume no.34;
J. Chapel, ' The Turner Collector: Joseph Gillott 1799-1872 ', Turner Studies, 1986, Volume 6, no. 2, p.48;
John Gage, J.M.W. Turner, A Wonderful Range of Mind, 1987, p.136;
E.Joll, 'Turner at Dunstanborough', Turner Studies, 1988, Volume 8, no.2, p.6
With the artist and then with Thomas Griffith, the artist's dealer, where seen by Ruskin on 3rd February 1844;
Bought from the artist (according to Finberg) or perhaps from Griffith by Charles Meigh of Shelton Staffordshire;
Charles Meigh's sale, Christie's, 21st June 1850, lot 154, bt. Lenox for 660 gns;
Colonel James Lenox, who gave it to the Lenox Library, New York (later the New York Public Library);
New York Public Library sale, Parke Bernet, New York 17th October 1956, lot 43, bt. Agnews, on behalf of Arthur Tooth and Son and sold to the father of the present owner.