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‘As an expression of the general spirit of English coast scenery’ Turner’s Whitby ‘must be considered the principal one of the series’, writes John Ruskin.1 The view is based on very slight sketches dating from 1822, when Turner travelled to Edinburgh in order to witness the celebrations of the recently crowned George IV (see the King’s Visit to Edinburgh sketchbook: Tate D17515, D17655–D17656, D17662; Turner Bequest CC 4a, 83a, 84, 87).
Ian Warrell writes that ‘in focussing on the fishermen pulling in their nets Turner emphasises the daily heroism involved in their dangerous trade’.2 Ruskin also notes that the ‘exaggerations of space and size’ in this drawing are ‘allowable’ given that these proportions help to ‘convey the feeling of danger conquered by activity and commerce, which characterises all our northerly Eastern coast’.3 The sharp diagonal sway of the ship certainly makes manifest the power of the sea and its strength of its currents. Julius Bryant suggests that fishermen hauling in their catch may also be intended to ‘double as the traditional Christian metaphor’, particularly as the linear ‘Y’ shape of the coble’s lug and mast lead the eye towards the abbey.4
The ruin of the Benedictine monastery on the headland remains to this day a distinctive feature of the town. It is here rendered with yellow and pink wash, applied in layered strokes to suggest the warm luminosity of the morning sun. In Turner’s drawing it stands isolate and exposed atop cliffs rendered with a ‘monotonous and severe verticality’, according to Ruskin.5 Founded by St Hilda in 657, the abbey was the location for the Synod of 664 when nuns and monks sought to reconcile the Celtic and Roman branches of the Christian church. The Benedictine abbey was built on these foundations in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but was destroyed by Henry VIII during the dissolution.
The verso of this drawing (Tate D41483; Turner Bequest CCVIII Jv) has been painted with grey watercolour wash of varying saturations.