Botanising Turner

1 Dec 2020

Guest blog by Dr David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History at Norfolk Museums Service

Many of us have heard of forensic entomology – where the succession of various insects and other invertebrates found on corpses are used to figure out time and date of death in a murder case – equally as brilliant as it is revolting! But what about forensic botany? Other areas of biological sciences can be just as useful in working out timings and dates, and thankfully in this case, dead bodies are nowhere to be found!

This case of forensics starts in 1806. A young artist by the name of Joseph Mallord William Turner sets up his easel and oil paints outside to paint the view at Walton Bridge, on the River Thames, Surrey. Skip ahead over 200 years to 2019, and this painting is acquired by Norfolk Museums Service with the help of major grants from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund.


A painting of a boat on a river river.


As you’d expect with a painting that’s been around for two centuries, lots of things have changed in the landscape since it was painted, and many facts about the painting have been lost through time. For example, there is nothing recorded about the time of year that Turner painted the scene – we simply know it was sometime during 1806. This is where botany (the study of plants) comes in!

After a quick chat with my line-manager Dr Francesca Vanke (Senior Curator at Norfolk Museums Service and Keeper of Fine and Decorative Arts at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery), a quiet Wednesday afternoon saw me leading a group of three botanists from the Norwich and Norfolk Naturalists’ Society (and my regular Natural History volunteers) upstairs into the Castle Art Galleries to take a closer look. Art Galleries are not the natural habitat of four biologists, and botanists are normally to be found ‘botanising’ in ditches, roadside verges and fields. However, we found ourselves with plenty to keep us occupied as we peered closely at the foreground and detail of this impressive painting.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A., Walton Bridges, oil on canvas, 92.7 x 123.8cm - Courtesy of Sotheby's


Turner is of course famous for his landscape paintings, but he was so good at recording the environment around him, that his brushstrokes portray recognisable plants, down to the species level. In ‘Walton Bridges’, the waterside and aquatic plants of the foreground indicate that it was painted in the midsummer period. The lower left-hand corner of the painting is in all likelihood depicting the emergent species Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia). Also, in the lower left of the painting is depicted the wetland species Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Meadowsweet flowers from June until September/October. A Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar lutea) can be seen in the bottom centre of the painting, close to the riverbank. This species is in flower from June to August. The trees in the background can be seen to be a fresh green colour, in full leaf and with no Autumn colouring. In conclusion; from botanical evidence, the period over which the painting was set is June-July – not a bad piece of detective work for 30 minutes ‘botanising’ in an Art Gallery with three other biologists!


To see this masterpiece for yourself, why not book a visit to Colchester Castle?

A Turner At The Castle

Where will your adventure start?