Joseph Mallord William TurnerThe Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle 1818

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Artwork details

The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle
From Bass Rock and Edinburgh Sketchbook
Turner Bequest CLXV
Date 1818
MediumGraphite on paper
Dimensionssupport: 99 x 159 mm
Acquisition Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXV 49 a
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Catalogue entry

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 49 Verso:
The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle 1818
Turner Bequest CLXV 49a
Pencil on white laid paper, 99 x 159 mm
Inscribed in pencil by Turner [?] ‘grass’ centre top | ‘G[e]o[rge] Wright [?]Luther’ | Crosby Studio [or stables?]’ centre | ‘N Macarlow’ ?‘ Maker | Grocer’ ?‘Durham | Horburgh | Shop’ bottom, and ‘JMW’ bottom right.
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The Castle from the Grassmarket was engraved by Henry Le Keux from A.W. Calcott’s design for the fourth number of Scott’s Provincial Antiquities. This page shows Turner’s version of the scene, which concentrates more on the area’s commercial activity than it does on its proximity to the castle or history as the site where condemned criminals were hanged. We look at a row of shops and businesses on the north side of the Grassmarket with the Castle Rock behind.
Turner has fastidiously inscribed the buildings with the names of their proprietors, although, unfortunately his illegible handwriting makes it difficult to be certain of the names, none of which seems to match the famous establishments of the Grassmarket; although ‘B’ may stand for ‘Black Bull’, a tavern that still exists and resembles the building in the centre of this drawing. Turner also inscribed names on sketches of Edinburgh High Street and the West Bow with Heriot’s Hospital on folio 52 verso (D13412; CLXV 50a) and in the Scotch Antiquities sketchbook (Tate D13412, D13697, D13701–D13702, D13708; Turner Bequest CLXVII 65a, 67a, 68, 69); many of these can be made out by the clearer lettering in Turner’s watercolour versions of the subjects: Edinburgh High Street, circa 1818 (Yale Center for British Art)1 and Heriot’s Hospital, circa 1819 (National Gallery of Scotland).2
The inscription at the top of the page, ‘grass’, is easy to make out. The name written across the building in the centre of the picture may be ‘G[e]o[rge] Wright [?]Luther’ (or Heather), with ‘Crosbi studios’ or ‘stables’ written below it. The name at the bottom left may read ‘N Macarlow’. The inscription at the bottom centre of the page may describe two businesses: ‘[...] Maker’ and ‘Grocer’. The inscription at the bottom right looks like: ‘Durham | Horburgh | Shop’. Finally Turner seems to have added his own initials at the very right of the sketch, ‘JMW’. The letters ‘B’ and ‘W’ are also written on two of the buildings, either referring to the proprietors (such as ‘Black Bull’), or perhaps to the appearance of the buildings themselves, for example, ‘black’ and ‘white’, or ‘brick’ and ‘wooden’.
Although the sketch is mainly restricted to architectural outlines, he has included reminders of what the buildings are for such as a shop sign hanging from the building in the centre, and rectangular signs on the other buildings, as well as a series of lines and semicircles on the street outside one of the shops, which may represent barrels or crates waiting to be brought in. He has also captured the distinctive aspects of the architecture in this area of Edinburgh: the tall, narrow tenements with clerestory windows in the roof and crow-step gabling.
Walter Scott’s description of the Grassmarket for the Provincial Antiquities concentrates on the area as ‘the place of public execution’,3 a theme he took up that year in his novel The Heart of Midlothian which opens with a description of the Grassmarket.4
At the top of this page, the drawing runs onto the page above (folio 50; D13448; CLXV 50).

Thomas Ardill
November 2007

Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.426 no.1061.
Ibid., no.1064.
Sir Walter Scott, Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland with Descriptive Illustrations by Sir Walter Scott, Bart., Vol.I, London and Edinburgh, p.[86].
Sir Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian, 1818, Chapter First.

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