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As Colin Harrison observes,1 this and its companion drawing showing New College Chapel from the opposite end (Tate D02346; Turner Bequest L E) were not occasioned by any recorded commission. However, the chapel had recently been modified by the architect James Wyatt (1746–1813), with whom Turner was by now involved, specifically to draw Wyatt’s Gothic house for William Beckford at Fonthill, watercolour views of which were to appear at the Royal Academy in 1800 (various collections).2 An office drawing of the proposed house submitted to the Academy in 1798 in Wyatt’s name is evidently embellished with a landscape by Turner (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven).3
It is possible that these drawings of New College Chapel were intended for Wyatt, and may even have been executed in response to a commission from him. An important element of Wyatt’s ‘improvements’ was the organ screen with its Gothic arch affording a view of the west as well as the east window. This screen figures prominently in one of Turner’s drawings, while other features contributed by Wyatt appear conspicuously in the other. These facts seem more than coincidences, and the proposal that Wyatt lies behind the New College Chapel drawings would appear to have more weight than Harrison’s conclusion that the pair were embarked on as technical exercises in architectural drawing, a discipline that engaged Turner’s attention to a large extent in the later 1790s. Another consideration is the request from the Oxford Almanack Commissioners for a series of Oxford views, which may also have stimulated Turner in this direction; see Tate D02351 (Turner Bequest L J).
The subject of this drawing in particular suggests, too, that Turner had it in mind to pay homage to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), whom he reverenced, and whose last Discourse as President of the Royal Academy in 1790 he appears to have attended. The west window of New College Chapel had been executed to Reynolds’s designs by Thomas Jervais in 1778–85, and included a self-portrait of the President in the role of an adoring shepherd, who turns his head towards the viewer by way of artist’s signature. Turner has carefully placed himself so that this self-portrait is clearly in view.4
See Harrison 2000, pp.57–8.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.338 nos.335–339, reproduced, and pl.53.
Ibid., p.338 no.333, reproduced.
See Andrew Wilton, ‘Post tenebras lux: J.M.W. Turner, James Wyatt and the importance of stained glass’, Burlington Magazine, vol.154, May 2012; and John Martin Robinson, James Wyatt (1746–1813): Architect to George III, New Haven and London 2012, pp.210–11.