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This watercolour is worked up from a study in the Scotch Antiquities sketchbook (Tate D13588; Turner Bequest CLXVII 2), drawn when Turner made his way up to Scotland in 1818 to research the Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland project initiated by the publisher Robert Cadell and novelist Walter Scott. A watercolour drawing of about 1823 is likely a related colour beginning (Tate D25290; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 168).1
Barbara Hofland, who was engaged to produce introductory descriptions of the Rivers of England plates, writes that Newcastle offered ‘to the eye the most striking and pleasing objects’ which ‘characterise the wealth, science, and enterprising spirit of the place’.2 The city was ‘well known as the great emporium of the coal-trade, and for its possession of almost illimitable collieries’.3 It had ‘a fine Exchange, splendid assembly rooms, numerous charitable institutions, and literary ones’.4 In essence, the city possessed all the signifiers of prosperity and gentility which spoke of ‘the intellectual taste and the advanced civilization of its inhabitants’.5
Turner depicts the city and the adjoining town of Gateshead, looking west, with the River Tyne running between. The river is ‘crowded with shipping, keels, wherries, steam-boats, and other small craft’.6 From the left to right are the city’s most conspicuous historic landmarks: first, the tower of St Mary’s, Gateshead and next to it, the Tyne Bridge of 17727. Above the bridge is Elswick shot tower, for the manufacturing of lead ‘sheets, pipes, shot, white-lead, red-lead, and litharge.8 The metal was mined in the nearby towns of Stella and Swalwell and then transported to the tower for processing.9 To the right of Elswick is the keep of the eleventh-century castle, and next to this is the spire of the late eighteenth-century elliptical Church of All Saints’. The last landmark to be featured is the medieval steeple of St Nicholas Church.
Turner has peopled the staithes and steep hillsides of the river with a ‘cross-section of the town’s population’.10 A marine, a sailor, and a pair of women waving at the boatmen on a barge laden with cargo populate the immediate foreground. Beyond them labourers haul timbers next to an iron pulley towards a Union Jack at full mast and keelmen transport coal from the moored colliers. The masts of dozens of docked ships line the banks of the Tyne, the finely wrought lines of their cruciform frames layered and interspersed with the slack trapezoid shapes of white sails. The atmosphere is heavy with the effluvia of industry: smoke from Elswick tower and local lime kilns; fumes from the collieries and coal fires at the riverside; and dirtied vapour from the stationary steam engines pumping water from the mines. Indeed, as the art historian William Rodner writes, Turner here:
Michael Spender and Malcolm Fry, Turner at the Bankside Gallery: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Drawings & Water-colours of British River Scenes from the British Museum, exhibition catalogue, Bankside Gallery, London 1980, p.116, no.53.
Mrs [Barbara] Hofland, River Scenery, by Turner and Girtin, with Descriptions by Mrs. Hofland. Engraved by Eminent Engravers, from Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A. and the Late Thomas Girtin, London 1827, p.5, pl.2.
E. Mackenzie, Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1827, p.162.
'Public buildings: The Tyne Bridge', Historical Account of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Including the Borough of Gateshead (1827), pp. 204–15, accessed 21 February 2013, http://www
.british -history .ac .uk /report .aspx ?compid =43345
Athenaeum, 11 August 1838, p.537.
William S. Rodner, J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution, Berkeley and London 1997, p. 98.
Ann Chumbley and Ian Warrell, Turner and the Human Figure: Studies of Contemporary Life, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.49 no.49.
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