Joseph Mallord William TurnerJohnny Armstrong's Tower on the Esk near Langholm 1831

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Artwork details

Artist
Title
Johnny Armstrong's Tower on the Esk near Langholm
Date 1831
MediumGraphite on paper
Dimensionssupport: 114 x 187 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D25881
Turner Bequest CCLXVI 61
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Catalogue entry

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 61 Recto:
Johnny Armstrong’s Tower on the Esk near Langholm 1831
D25881
Turner Bequest CCLXVI 61
Pencil on white wove paper, 114 x 187 mm
Inscribed in blue ink by John Ruskin ‘61’ top right and ‘342’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCLXVI 61’ bottom right
 
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
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
The present page contains Turner’s first sketch of the tower. Although Finberg referred to it as ‘Banks of the River Esk’ he did not mention the presence of the tower. The view is from the south near the hamlet of Hollows which is shown in the foreground, with Hollows Mill (also known as Canonbie Mill) being the building nearest the river. Two arches, one at the bottom left of the present page and one on folio 60 verso (D25880) where the sketch continues slightly, probably belong to Gilnockie Bridge which is shown in the Scott illustration.
Sketches of the castle continue with further views from the south on folios 62 and 62 verso (D25883, D25884) and a view from the north on folio 61 verso (D25882). Turner’s watercolour was reconstructed from the three southern views. No single sketch was the model for the design which shifts and compresses the different elements of the scene, and takes a step back so that the tower is seen from an impossible position beyond Gilnockie Bridge.

Thomas Ardill
September 2009

1
Andrew Lang, John Lang and Hugh Thomson, Highways and Byways in the Border, London 1914, pp.419–20.
2
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.427 no.1073.

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