Completed British 19th C, except portraits, Dress and Textiles, Maritime Subjects, South West England: Artists and Subjects 22 It's likely not by Joshua Reynolds, so who did paint this stormy scene?

Topic: Artist

What is the basis for just about everything in this description apart from the fact its a rough day of a coast? Why Reynolds and why Plympton (which I think is inland anyway albeit Reynolds birthplace)? Both the dress and general appearance suggests mid-19th-century or later. Does it show men rescuing someone unseen over a cliff? Had Sir Josh done it even as a boy it wouldn't look like this!

I'm sure the Reynolds (and Plympton, his inland birthplace) are distractions to be dismissed, unless there is coincidentally a late 19th-/early 20th-century painter of that name.

Christie's have kindly confirmed that it was indeed sold on 9. 4. 1920 as fully attributed:

'Lot 154
11 ½ in. by 25 in.'

How they arrived there is a mystery: the hammer price to Graves was five and a half guineas, which suggests that even then no-one else (including him) seriously believed it, so he perhaps got it just as a nice thing to puzzle over in due course.

The collection note:

'I'm afraid that we have no further information on this work. It's attribution I believe must have been made historically from the label on the reverse. No further research has been done on this painting, however it was purchased by J. G. Graves from Christie's 9 April 1920, lot 154 (533 DC) as 'A Storm off the Coast'. We are uncertain when 'Plympton' was added.'

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

Edward Stone,

This painting is now titled 'Figures on a Sea Cliff in Stormy Weather'. It is listed as British School, c.1825–1850.

These amendments will appear on Art UK in due course.

Thank you to all for participating in this discussion. To those viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all comments that led to this conclusion.


Simon Gillespie,

Is there a way of getting a decent image ?
Has the canvas been lined ?
Can we see the original canvas on reverse?

Al Brown,

Can the collection confirm that this is not a fragment?

Jade Audrey King,

The collection have sent the attached and said the following:

'Please find attached a photo of the back of the work – it doesn’t seem to have been lined – and there is not really any further information I’m afraid.'

1 attachment

Thank you, though I'm afraid the low resolution and magnification possible make the label and other detail unreadable. My inclination in a case like this would be to treat the existing label as inexplicable distraction to be parked until/unless something emerges to change that, and start from scratch by working out what is going on for a more useful title at least. It looks like boys or young men, with a rope , either tending or trying to reach someone over the cliff edge and two other figures perhaps hurrying to help, so perhaps its a rescue or a seabird egg expedition on a stormy coast (and not Plympton). Given the inability here to see detail of clothing -which is really the only clue to specific date- it looks to me more mid- 19th-century at earliest than late-18th but perhaps the dress specialists could help on that?

Jade Audrey King,

Thanks Pieter.

The Dress and Textiles group has now been linked to this discussion.

A high resolution image of the work is attached, also.

1 attachment

That's better! Even without the dodgy link to Reynolds I can see why anyone with an eye for a lively subject and bold handling would have bought that for a fiver, even at 1920 values. I wouldn't put it before about 1820 and probably later on the general appearance, though perhaps not much after mid-century, but may be wrong . It also looks roughly as already suggested: three lads on the cliff tending a rope tied to a fourth who is reaching down over the edge for something (i.e. perhaps birds' eggs), plus two older men of the coast, perhaps on a similar expedition, with their dog bounding behind, either catching sight of them as indicative of a profitable spot or about to boot them of their patch! The man in front carries what may be a coil of tarred rope(?) -or something stiff enough to be circular and not sag- on a stick over his shoulder with a fork at the upper end. The skin tone of the boy standing on the right may suggest he is black or at least mixed race. That he is wearing a red cap is a compositional highlight but may also back that up since, this (or alternatively a red waistcoat) is a fairly common feature when black figures appear in early 19th c. British nautical images. The best example for a seaman (and the only one so far with a name attached) is the West Indian Greenwich Pensioner, John Deman, who appears on the right in Andrew Morton's group subject of them ('The United Service', 1845):

The sailing vessels on the horizon don't greatly help. The ship on the left is intended as large, but could be anything up to the 1850s: at least it is not obviously much later in profile. The single sails to the right indicate small craft but would need to ne at least half the height they are to be in realistic scale with it (i.e. overlarge as shown).

It could easily be the Channel coast in the West Country (since apparently not the chalk cliff of points further east) but its not Plympton.

Thanks Pieter, I agree with the date of c.1825-1850 and a stormy coast where it's not chalk. I suppose the boys could be collecting young birds from nests on the cliff or eggs. As an ex-caver (retired) I'm not very impressed with their ropework!

Mark Gray,

I was always taught to focus on 'what you see on the canvas', so let's focus on technique - which is pretty poor for composition and execution. We have a plain weave canvas of (prima facie) unusual proportion, very likely cut from a roll or one of the plethora of minor sizes available from the 1830s onwards, with no very evident priming and no very clear evidence (that doesn't mean it wasn't there in e.g. graphite or line drawn oil) of any attempt to delineate a design before applying paint. This can't be en plein air painting (from where would the painter be viewing this scene?) Paint has been freely applied so that, for example, the sea above the rocks to the right of the kneeling boys must have been applied while the paint laid down for the rocks was itself wet. Stiff brushes, and possibly a knife, have been used to apply the paint. The subject is a rescue below the rocks with lots of animation of the scene from people (and a dog) running to help, but there is no sight of the stricken boat (if there is one). It is possible that a ship aground did feature on portions of canvas below the bottom edge of the picture - i.e. this is indeed a cut down canvas which might have featured more of the rockface and a boat below.

From which I would conclude/hazard it is an amateur canvas of the 1830-50 period; and it has none of the compositional finesse of the 'rescue at sea' genre represented by people like Henry Barlow Carter - where the drama of the scene is fully set out to include the stricken ship and the landside efforts to save those on board. This incompleteness of depiction, and the dominance of these tropes of the genre, suggest this is a cut down canvas of a poorly executed painting.

Sorry that doesn't get us toward a name, but I think the physical evidence worth laying out.

I think one has to leave the matter of exact subject as 'intruguing puzzle'. The 'foraging expedition' hypothesis is no more than that but I can't see any reason to insert a 'wreck' scenario. What seems reasonably clear its that the three figures on the right in the far group have a rope attached to the fourth, but whether 'rescuing' him as he crawls up from below (for whatever reason) or tending a line as he reaches down over the edge I can't tell. I don't see any reason to think it a fragment -though perhaps a study -or to call it 'amateur', unless a rather good one: the figures are cetainly good. Given that subject is not going to be resolved without some new evidence the issue is 'whodunnit'. The association with Reynolds may have originated because it once had some other early 19th century artist of that name attached to it-though I don't know of one - which was then turned into later commercial kite-flying as Sir Joshua.

Without that baggage, however, dispassionate cataloguing would probably describe it as 'Figures on a sea cliff in stormy weather' and the artist as 'British school, early 19th century' (or c.1825-50) possibly with the rider '(formely attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds)'. Unless anyone can make a better artist suggestion, perhaps the collection could at least agree to alter the artist/date element and drop the 'Plympton' ref. -which is just wrong - and we can then wrap this us as far as current discussion goes.

Mark Gray,

My point is that the fact that the subject isn't clear is the most interesting feature of this painting, that it would be abundantly clear in any complete painting by a half competent artist of the time, and that storm-wracked rescues are more likely than an afternoon's egg collecting in a hurricane for such a scene painted at this time. I don't think there is anything more one can glean from it - except that Joshua Reynolds would surely have been ashamed to be associated with it.

I agree: it's tantalizing as to exact subject and -admire it or not as to manner or state of finish- undoubtedly lively: Graves got his fiver's worth, but I don't think we are going to get further at present.

Al Brown,

I still think it would be useful for Sheffield to confirm whether or not examination of the work suggests is a fragment. If this is the case, this would explain the odd composition and proportions and, perhaps, the sloping horizon line - it might, for example, be cut from the background of a larger piece.

Jade Audrey King,

Just to let you all know that Museums Sheffield have seen the Art Detective activity on their works – collection staff are busy with the opening of the newly refurbished museum, and will look into Art Detective comments and suggestions when they are next able.

Malcolm Fowles,

I find only one other "Joshua Reynolds" seascape online: fourth image at A sale record for the same work as "Shipping in a choppy sea" ("attributed" to Reynolds) is on Artnet, data visible only to subscribers.

From the B&W photo I doubt that the same hand painted both works, but if some sale details should tally, then the same person may have attibuted them.

Interesting that there is such another ancient 'duff' attribution to Reynolds though clearly by another hand. Its van de Velde-ish but not a composition that Robinson lists for him and the ships may be a little more into the early 18th c -possibly good Monamy, who tends to include features like coastal towers while v de V does not - but hard to go further given the image quality: pity its gone to ground though, since looks rather good.

As regards the work in hand, its just waiting on Sheffield.

Jo Andrew,

Just a long shot but could it be by WJJC Bond? Liverpool artist who started out working as a restorer and had contact with and was very impressed by works by Turner. Apart from his beached fishing boat scenes, he painted some rather low key landscapes. He took his technique inspiration from the many paintings he worked on. His works were not always signed. Just a guess as I cannot blow up your picture.

Malcolm Fowles,

I see why you suggest Bond, e.g. the palette and loose style. Personally I feel he's more skilled and more recent than what we have here, even if he may have copied the subjects from others. Look for example at the care he takes over figures and animals, way above of the league of ours. Interesting artist. Thank you.

Thanks for taking a shot, but I think current update suggestion should stand - 'Figures on a sea cliff in stormy weather' and the artist as 'British school, early 19th century' (or c.1825-50) - but as always only pending an alternative that has better sticking power.

I am prepared to make a formal recommendation in line with the views of two other relevant group leaders, Sheena Stoddard and Pieter, that this is by an unidentified British artist of c.1825-50, and that an appropriate new title would be 'Figures on a Sea Cliff in Stormy Weather'.

I should register a disagreement with some patricipants about the artistic quality, however. To me the high res image shows the figures and dog to be lively and well-observed. The overall painting quality seems pretty good to me and well above that of an amateur. Bear in mind it seems to be a sketch and not a finished picture.

Museums Sheffield,

We would be happy for the painting information to be updated as suggested by Andrew above.
Many thanks for your contributions.