Turner's Guernsey Sketchbook

12th March 2015

In 1931 Spencer Carey Curtis, acting on a tip-off from a Jersey antiquarian, Major N V L Rybot, visited the British Museum to hunt out one of Joseph Mallord William Turner's sketchbooks, labelled 'Guernsey:'

which I examined and I was able to identify over 120 sketches of various parts of Guernsey and Sark. Hardly any had been labelled correctly. Castle Cornet was described as a 'fortified island in a river', a small island next to Herm, which had a 'J' over it and was labelled 'Jersey'. Turner seems to have used his facile pencil as the modern tripper uses his Kodak. There are sketches of Alderney as he approached Guernsey, the Market, High Street, the Town Church, a day's visit to Petit Bot, Rocquaine, etc.

[Report and Transactions of the Soc. Guernesiaise 1931, p. 144.]

Turner had probably tried to name his drawings from memory and had handwriting no better than a scrawl. Some of the letters over elements of his sketches were simply there as colour notes for the artist.  Philip Stevens, in his Dictionary of Painters of the Channel Islands,tells us that Carey Curtis did his best to identify the views back in 1931. In fact we have Curtis' notes and list of the sketches and their subjects in the Library, as Notes on Turner's Guernsey Sketchbook, along with the outline of a contemporary plan, probably at his instigation, to reproduce twenty of the best sketches as a portfolio, funded by subscription—as each photograph, taken by the British Museum's in-house photographer, would have cost the island six shillings. This idea was in reaction to the Museum's refusal to loan the Sketchbook to Guernsey, but does not seem to have met with enough support, and the portfolio was not published. Interestingly, one of Turner's most important early patrons was Guernseyman Samuel Dobrée, a prominent banker based in London, as well as a merchant and privateer owner, who was the brother of the diarist Elisha Dobrée and of Bonamy Dobrée of Beauregard.

Apparently, Turner thought his trip to Guernsey had been 'unfortunate.' The visit is now thought to have taken place in 1832. The whole of the Guernsey Sketchbook, which has moved from the British Museum to the Tate Gallery, is now available to view online, and contains some fascinating drawings of great interest to the Guernsey historian, as well as others of Normandy.

Unfortunately the labelling is just as woeful as Carey Curtis found it; many views of Guernsey are not named as such, including a lovely view of St Peter Port called simply Street Scene: some are missnamed: Carey Curtis' 'small island next to Herm with a J over it' is still labelled as Jersey, for instance. So have fun trying to identify Carey Curtis' 120 views, and if you want to know how he identified them, pay a visit to the Library and find out!