They have been digitized and very systematically put online in a very detailed way (eg each page with a drawing has a web page) and you can find all the Turner Sketchbooks online on the Tate Britain website.
The sketchbooks are accessible in a considered structure and academic way. They are not small and many run to over a hundred pages. If you want to study I recommend setting aside some time to have a realy good look.
If you click one of these links below it presents you with the sketchbook. You can then navigate through the sketchbook using the arrow keys. If you click on an image it will appear larger and you can then see details of what it is thought to be and its size and what media were used to produce it. If you then click the image again it will appear at an even larger size. You also have the option to view a digitally enhanced image.
You will then see how 'sketchy' his landscape sketches are. Given there were no cameras at the time, bear in mind that these sketches and any watercolours done on the spot were the only reference material he had for producing much larger landscape paintings
These are links to his Turner's Sketchbooks from the 1790s. They include:
- sketchbooks devoted to specific places - almost all in the UK in this decade
- sketchbooks dedicated to specific animals (eg cows, swans)
- deliberate studies for paintings
- work done for Dr Munro's Academy which is where Turner worked with other young watercolour artists of his day.
- Academical Sketchbook [Finberg XLIII]
- Bristol and Malmesbury Sketchbook [Finberg VI]
- Calais Pier Sketchbook [Finberg LXXXI]
- Cows Sketchbook [Finberg LXII] - just cows! Sketches which aid the creation of paintings in the future
- Dolbadarn Sketchbook [Finberg XLVI]
- Dr Monro's Album of Italian Views [Finberg CCCLXXIII] the sketchbooks relating to Dr Munro's Academy include ones which Turner and Girtin worked on together. Girtin tended to do the drawings which Turner then coloured.
- Dr Monro's Album of Swiss and Italian Views [Finberg CCCLXXIV]
- Dynevor Castle Sketchbook [Finberg XL]
- Egyptian Details Sketchbook [Finberg LXVI]
- Hereford Court Sketchbook [Finberg XXXVIII]
- Isle of Wight Sketchbook [Finberg XXIV]
- Lancashire and North Wales Sketchbook [Finberg XLV]
- Marford Mill Sketchbook [Finberg XX]
- Matlock Sketchbook [Finberg XIX]
- North Wales Sketchbook [Finberg XXXIX]
- North of England Sketchbook [Finberg XXXIV]
- On the Cliffs Sketchbook [Finberg LXIV]
- Salisbury Sketchbook [Finberg XLIX]
- Smaller South Wales Sketchbook [Finberg XXV]
- South Wales Sketchbook [Finberg XXVI]
- Studies for Pictures Sketchbook [Finberg LXIX]
- Studies near Brighton Sketchbook [Finberg XXX]
- Swans Sketchbook [Finberg XLII]
- Tweed and Lakes Sketchbook [Finberg XXXV]
- Wilson Sketchbook [Finberg XXXVII]
Sometimes the descriptions are very specific, often they just state things like 'Part of a Castle with Sea and Hills Beyond'
How do the archivists know what he's sketched? In some of the sketchbooks he makes a list at the beginning of what's included in the sketchbook. Those of who work from sketches will know how useful it is to be able to pick up a sketchbook and look at a label or list of contents which saves so much time when you are looking for a particular sketch! For archivists this and Turner's very clear handwriting must have been a huge asset to the classification of his sketchbooks.
Besides inscriptions Tuner also used either end of his sketchbook to practice colour weashes. How many of us do the same?
Find out more about Turner by consulting my Turner resource site which provides links to further information about the man, his work and where you can see it and read about it - see JMW Turner - Resources for Art Lovers.
Find out more about Dr Munro and how important he was to the development of watercolour landscape painting in the UK on the handprint website.
Find out more about where Turner sketched in the British Isles by consulting the map on the website. Click a county or area to find an annotated list of sketches plus the images.