Rockets and Blue Lights, or to give the work its full title, Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water is a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner. It is fairly typical Turner seascape, all swirling colours, smoke and seaspray, painted by an artist who is often regarded as the greatest British painter that ever lived. Dated to the year 1840 the painting passed through a number of hands until it was purchased in 1932 by an American couple Mr and Mrs Clark, and is now in the ownership of the Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, Massachusetts.

In 2001 the Clark Art Institute together with the Williamstown Art Conservation Center carried out a detailed analysis of the painting and came to the conclusion that the work had suffered as the result of poor restoration work on the past, and decided to embark on a thorough re-restoration programme to return the work to its original state. The work was carried out over a period of six months by David Bull, a conservationist at the National Gallery in Washington, and the newly restored was unveiled to the American public on the 2nd August 2003 when it was hailed as a "miraculous recovery" of Turner's work. It then left for Britain where it became the centerpiece of a Turner exhibition that travelled to both Manchester and Glasgow in 2004.

The Mystery of the Missing Boat

An American painter by the name of Edmund Rucinski attended the unveiling of the newly restored painting on the 2nd August 2003 and was rather shocked by what he saw. As far as he was concerned the Rockets and Blue Lights that he knew had always featured two steamboats, but the in the post-restoration painting the right-hand steamboat had been completely eradicated. In fact the Clark Institute made a point of drawing everyone's attention to the missing boat and showed a copy of a 19th century lithograph of the painting that showed one boat, citing this as evidence that the second steamboat had been added sometime in the early 20th century and did not therefore form part of Turner's original painting.

Now Edmund Rucinski knew that the painting was acquired in 1850 by the publishing company Day and Son who had engaged an artist by the name of Robert Carrick to prepare a chromolithograph reproduction of Rockets and Blue Lights which appeared in 1852. The resulting lithograph clearly featured two boats so it was clear that the extra boat could not have been added to the painting after that date, but remained at a loss as to where the Clark had obtained their one boat print.

His enquiries revealed that the restorer David Bull had worked from a photograph of some print about which he knew nothing other than that it originated in the Yale Center for British Art. Rucinski considered the possibility that one of the early plates prepared by Carrick might have only featured the single boat, and that the Clark had mistakenly used one of these early plates. Although the Yale Centre was curiously reluctant to allow Rucinski to examine their archives he was eventually able to secure access and was thus able to confirm that all copies of print at the Yale Center featured two steamboats.

It therefore remains a mystery as to where the Clark got hold of its one steamboat image.

When Rockets and Blue Lights duly made its appearance in Britain in 2004 the question of the missing boat became something of a minor scandal. One Michael Daley, the head of an organisation named Artwatch (which exists primarily to monitor the quality of restoration work) was quoted as referring to the painting having been "so wrecked it should not have left home", whilst a former curator of the Manchester Gallery was to be found demanding a "proper inquiry" and claiming "They do not seem to have researched the painting properly before restoring it".

In the face of such criticism the official line from the Clark appeared to change. From insisting at the beginning of 2004 only ever featured one boat by the end of the year Richard Rand, its senior curator was saying that "we have always maintained that the original Turner had two boats".

What the Clark Art Instiute failed to mention in all this was that as long ago as 1962 they had recognised the painting as being "a very ill picture", although they have always insisted that the damage had been done before the Clark's acquired the picture in 1932. Thus in 1963 they engaged one William Suhr to carry out a thorough restoration of the work which when subsequently unveiled in 1964 was proclaimed as having finally brought to light the true genius of Turner's original conception. Thus one can only presume that the 2003/4 'restoration' was largely concerned with undoing their 1963/4 restoration.

We therefore reach a point where we can say that if you had gone to see Rockets and Blue Lights before 1964, what you would have seen was an "ill picture" supposedly degraded by decades of mis-conceived restoration work. After that date you would have seen a supposedly restored painting where it was later deemed that "75 percent of the surface of the painting" was not the work of the artist, whereas even now the Clark Institute only claim that they have "restored a semblance of Rockets' original, powerful effect" since the "delicate glazes and top layers of paint were lost long ago" and all that remains is Turner's "quickly brushed underpaint".

So perhaps the point is not so much as to whether the Clark Institute is right or wrong as regards this or its previous restoration, but that whatever way you look at it, the painting that you see today isn't the Rockets and Blue Lights that Turner painted in 1840, but rather an expert's approximation. Neither is Rockets and Blue Lights unique in this respect. Most of the world's art has deteriorated in some manner since the time of its creation. Galleries and museums face a difficult choice in terms of deciding to what extent they should interfere in the natural ageing process and attempt to return pictures to their original state. And given the commercial pressures that exist there is always the temptation to embark on 'radical' restorations simply because the more different a painting becomes the more newsworthy and therefore marketable it becomes.

The lesson to be learnt is that whilst we naively accept much of the art that hangs in the world's art galleries as being 'by the artist', the truth is that what we are often really seeing is some 'expert's' conception of what that artist intended.


  • Alasdair Palmer The mystery of the missing boat Sunday Telegraph 17 July 2005
  • Manchester Online, Restorers sink steamer from Turner masterpiece, Wednesday, 14th January 2004
  • BBC Mystery of painting's missing boat Wednesday, 14 January, 2004
  • Turner: The Late Seascapes
  • Ship lost at Clark. Many records feared missing. Establishment unfazed. 1/22/2004

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