Joseph Mallord William Turner

Johnny Armstrong’s Tower on the Esk near Langholm


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Graphite on paper
Support: 114 x 187 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXVI 61

Catalogue entry

Gerald Finley assumes that Turner visited Johnny Armstrong’s Tower on 2 August on his way to Langholm. The claim is supported by the order of sketches in the book where pictures of the tower follow views of Lochmaben Castle (folio 60 verso; D25880) and are directly preceded by a view of Langholm (folio 63; D25885). The route is possible according to the ordnance survey map: if Turner had struck off from the road that is now the B7068 just after Bigholms at Blockferry, and continued south and then east to reach the hamlet of Hollows. Turner sketched the tower first from the south and then from the north, which is consistent with a subsequent journey north to Langholm.
The only objection with this theory is that, assuming he had stayed at Dumfries the previous night, he would have been left with a long journey and eventful schedule of sketching that day, followed by a much shorter journey to Hawick with little sketching the next. Instead he may have gone directly to Langholm on 2 August, and then visited the tower on the morning of the 3rd before returning to Langholm and on to Hawick. The sketchbook evidence, however, is against this theory, and Finley’s route while arduous would have been possible.
Johnny Armstrong’s Tower is situated at the hamlet of Hollows on the west bank of the River Esk four miles south of Langholm. Known variously as Hollows or Gilnockie Tower, it has been doubted that this was the building associated with the border outlaw Johnny Armstrong as Sir Walter Scott assumed. Andrew and John Lang agree that Armstrong’s stronghold was at Gilnockie Castle, located a few hundred metres south of the tower. Little of it remains as it was plundered for building material for local homes and Gilnockie Bridge.1 Nevertheless Scott described the tower as the residence of Johnny Armstrong in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and Turner’s illustration was published under that title: Johnnie Armstrong’s Tower circa 1832 (watercolour, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati).2

Thomas Ardill
September 2009

Andrew Lang, John Lang and Hugh Thomson, Highways and Byways in the Border, London 1914, pp.419–20.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.427 no.1073.

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