Keelmen Heaving Coals by Moonlight


“To the right, the keelmen and the dark, flat-bottomed keels that carried the coal from Northumberland and Durham down the River Tyne are silhouetted against the orange and white flames from the torches, as the coal is transferred to the sailing ships. To the left, square riggers wait to sail out on the morning tide. Behind these ships Turner suggested the distant cluster of factories and ships with touches of gray paint and a few thin lines.” (curatorial notes)

Accession Number: 


Height (in centimeters): 


Width (in centimeters): 

Painted for Henry McConnell, a cotton-spinner in Manchester (Hamilton 31).

1835: Modern Artists, Royal Manchester Institution, 1835, no. 260

1854: Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1835, no. 24


Review from: The Literary Gazette
9 May, 1835
No. 955:

“No. 24. Keelmen heaving in coals by Night.
J. M. W. Turner, R.A.—And such a night!
—a flood of glorious moon-light wasted upon
dingy coal-whippers, instead of conducting lovers
to the appointed bower. That, when it is Mr.
Turner’s object, however, to call up associations
of romance and beauty, he is ‘powerful at it.’”

Review from: The London Times
23 May, 1835
No. 15,798:

“No. 24. “Keelmen heaving in Coals by Night.”—J. M.
W. Turner. One of those masterly productions by which
the artist contrives to convey very striking effects with just so
much of adherence to nature as prevents one from saying they
are merely fanciful. It represents neither night nor day, and
yet the general effect is very agreeable and surprising.”

(curatorial notes)
Signed on the buoy at lower left: JMWT (Hayes 279).
Tynemouth, London
Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834) by J.M.W. Turner:

This painting was also commissioned by Henry McConnell and was meant to be viewed together with Keelmen Heaving Coals by Moonlight. The two side by side were meant to demonstrate the contrast between the decline of Venice as a “trading and maritime power” and the efficiency of England, whose port bustles even at night and is characterized as “busy” and “well-organized” (Hamilton 31, 34).

Shields on the River Tyne (1823) by J.M.W. Turner:

This is a watercolor and gouache drawing, signed and dated 1823, upon which the composition of Keelsmen is based. It was engraved by C. Turner for "The Rivers of England" in 1823. The oil deviates from the watercolor in that Turner has put the ships deeper into the distance and widened the channel between the two lines of ships (Butlin and Joll 210).

Seaport at Sunset (1639) by Claude de Lorrain:

This painting portrays a port scene similar to those found in Keelmen Heaving Coals by Moonlight and Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore. Some of the elements—the use of light on the horizon, the gathering of ships around an open foreground of water, and the appearance of figures (ships and buildings) in the distance—are similar to those used by Turner, who admired Lorrain’s work (Brook-Hart 5).
Turner’s use of Romantic elements gives beauty and significance to the industrial subject of this painting. The moon shines brightly through the clouds, so that the back of the image is obscured in light. The smoke on the right and the blinding light of the moon, combined with the generally foggy atmosphere of the painting, obscures the ordinary objects on the water, such as the ropes and torches, and makes them more abstract. The conservation notes inform us that
[t]ypical to Turner’s approach to painting, the basic elements of nature fuse; earth, air, fire, and water meld here under the luminous beams of the moon. Although the coolness of the light denotes a nighttime view, there is little sense of darkness. The artist has transformed nature with a flooding, all-pervasive moonlight.
Another commentator observes:
A common factor in this pendant pair (Keelemen Heaving Coals by Moonlight and Venice:The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore) as in many sea or river paintings by Turner, is the open foreground defined by gathering boats, which adds to the illusion of the stage, where figures fall back to await, or participate in, a coming action. (Hamilton 34)
Turner uses Romantic elements here to transform the ordinary into the poetic and the mysterious; this painting exemplifies how the subject of the sea lends itself to such a transformation. For example, "the artist used light to obliterate and liberate forms so that they could exist in poetic strangeness” (conservation notes). Furthermore, this scene hints at Turner's belief that humanity was part of nature, “that the source of well-being lay in the harmonious relation of man with his environment” (conservation notes); in this case, the human toil and smut of the Industrial Revolution combine with the natural setting of the sea.

The keelmen in this painting are loading Tyne coal from the barges (keels) which traveled “around the clock” in order to provide Londoners with enough coal to keep them “luxuriously warm.” Like the gondolas in Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, the barges are portrayed as flat-bottomed; however, despite this similarity in form, the barges serve as images of hard labor that contrast with the gondolas floating lazily in the Grand Canal. This contrast exemplifies some of the English national pride and international competition that was associated with seascapes in the Romantic era (Hamilton 34).
Brook-Hart, Denys. British 19th Century Marine Painting. Suffolk: Baron, 1974. Print.

Butlin, Martin and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.

Hamilton, James. Turner: The Late Seascapes. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.

Hayes, John. British Paintings of the 16th through 19th Centuries. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Tracy, Nicholas. Britannia's Palette: The Arts of Naval Victory. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2007. Print.

Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775-1851, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835, Oil on canvas, 92.3 x 122.8m (36 3/8 x 48 3/8 inches), Widener Collection, 1942.9.86, NGA.

Image Date: 


Creation Technique: