‘Calais Pier’, by William Turner

J.M. William Turner [23 Apr 1775 – 19 Dec 1851]

«Calais Pier, with French Poissards preparing for Sea: an English Packet arriving», 1803
Tate Gallery, London

A cross-channel ferry (a packet), fully laden with passengers and flying a British flag, is approaching the port of Calais. Around it, small French fishing boats (‘poissards’) head out to sea. The water is rough and dark storm clouds gather, although a shaft of sunlight breaks through to illuminate the white sail in the centre of the picture. In the lower right foreground, a small fishing boat is trying to get away to avoid being battered against the pier. The scene looks chaotic and there is a risk of collision.

Turner’s painting is based on an actual event he experienced, when he travelled from Dover to Calais in 1802 on his first trip abroad and was ‘nearly swampt‘ in a storm at sea. Although it had a mixed response when first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803, the critic John Ruskin declared it to be the first painting to show signs of ‘Turner’s colossal power’.

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