Shot out of the water? – An Addendum

Keith Chan, MA History and Philosophy of Art, assesses different readings of Turner’s red daub.

Detail from: J.M.W. Turner, Helvoetsluys (1832), Tokyo Fuji Art Museum.

MA Art History student Keith Chan writes: On Turner’s addition of a red daub to Helvoetsluys, Constable famously said: “He has been here and fired a gun” (Riding, n.d.). Scholars have taken this as a metaphor for a ship’s gun: that Constable felt blown out of the water by Turner’s single, masterful cannon shot, or so thinks Solkin (Riding, n.d.). However, Riding buoys a second possibility: it might refer to a metaphorical handgun, “like a starting pistol or duel” (n.d.). Here, I explore the appeal of the first reading through a comparative analysis of Helvoetsluys and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Waterloo Bridge), before foregrounding other contextual factors to argue that that interpretation, especially its focus on a feuding Constable and Turner, is overblown. Now, Constable would have had good reason to be unsettled by Turner’s daub. He’d meddled with the placement of one of Turner’s paintings in favour of his own Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows a year before (n.d.), so it makes sense for the competitive Turner to have had it out for Constable. In any case, just look at Helvoetsluys.

Our eyes are drawn to the red buoy, which sits comfortably in the trough of an illuminated patch of roiling sea. It mediates between murkier waters lurking on the lowermost plane of the canvas and its white shimmering surface. Meanwhile, lilting cascades of light wonderfully accented with yellow descend from grey skies. It catches in the sail of the centremost ship before distant highlights guide our eyes to rest again on the buoy. It serves a magnetic anchor point, such that a survey of any other aspect of the canvas folds inevitably back onto that little spot, as if we were riding the curvature of the rolling waves, rocking boats, and shifting sky. The buoy transforms the painting’s overall greyness, becoming coloured with an atmospheric feeling of harmonious depth and animation vis-à-vis the churning seas. It allows the smaller 914 x 1220 mm painting to punch above its weight, having been hung next to Constable’s 1308 x 2180 mm work.

Comparatively, Constable’s painting strikes one as oppressively busy. A contrast laden mesh of white, rust, and blue forms a sky rendered with a sheer dimensionality. Below, a scramble of intense values and granular textures coalesce into an overwhelming complex of festivities unfolding on the Thames. Constable’s red highlights obfuscate more than they clarify. We are repelled from the river and drawn instead to the clouds if only because they’re somehow less visually taxing. No wonder Leslie thought Constable’s painting weak in comparison to Turner’s strong simplicity, and no wonder the appeal of the thought that Constable might have felt himself shot out of the water.

Yet, there’s evidence suggesting that this reading might be overblown. Per Riding, a sentiment as severe as the feeling of having been blown out of the water is far from one disclosed by Constable himself (n.d.). More importantly, Constable’s remark follows Leslie’s own comparison between both paintings: “[the] intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak” (Riding, n.d.). Framed against such a comment, we’ve already been prompted to focus exclusively on Turner and Constable. Furthermore, there are other dimensions to competition that have been neglected, such as subject matter – which serves as a surer indicator of competition – and the presence of other players in their art community.

Turner was then in direct competition with George Jones, having painted a work with the same subject, size, and room as him (Riding, n.d.). While academicians had assumed that “Turner had secretly taken advantage of [Jones]”, it really was a friendly bout mutually agreed upon by both artists (Tate, n.d.), even if Turner’s attempt was panned by critics who considered Jones’s painting as a better rendition of its Old Testament subject matter (Tate, n.d.; Riding, n.d.). Therefore, this illustrates the importance of subject matter and its role in signalling competition with stakes, friendly or not. Furthermore, Reynolds observes that Turner had curiously never endeavoured to “paint a version of English pastoral in direct competition with Constable” despite his willingness to emulate the works of contemporaries that include figures aside from Jones (2020, p. 89). Lastly, with respect to Constable, there’s some evidence to suggest that the more recent opening of London Bridge, coupled with his possible awareness of the prospect that other artists were planning to depict it, might have spurred Constable to finally finish Waterloo Bridge to begin with, which he had been labouring over for more than a decade (Tate, n.d.). In fact, Constable’s painting was even confused by one or two for Jones’s and Stanfield’s depiction of the opening of London Bridge (Tate, n.d.), again showing how subject matter played no small role when it came to competition with other artists. Hence, if the red daub is to be read as direct competition, it’s at least, comparatively, an anomalously minimal one. In closing, consider also the painting that Turner had submitted in competition against Jones:

Note how his use of red against cooly coloured skies (particularly the red blotch on the right-hand side of the canvas) heightens the drama and disarray. The point here is that Turner’s employment of intense red as a means to animate his painting did not come fully out of left field; it’d already been done in Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace, and perhaps replicated far more subtly in Helvoetsluys.

An extract from Keith Chan’s outstanding essay of the same title.


Constable, J. (1817). The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. [oil on canvas]

Reynolds, G. (2020). Turner: Second Edition (World of Art). Thames & Hudson.

Riding, J. (n.d.). 1832 Shot out of the Water? [online]

Tate (n.d.). ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace‘, Joseph Mallord William Turner, exhibited 1832. [online] Tate.

Tate (n.d.). ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’)‘, John Constable, exhibited 1832. [online] Tate.

Turner, J.M.W. (1832a). Helvoetsluys; the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea. [oil on canvas]

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace. [Oil on canvas]