J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

Joseph Mallord William Turner Holy Island Cathedral circa 1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Holy Island Cathedral circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVI N
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 185 x 265 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘HOLY ISLAND CATHEDRAL.’, published Charles Turner, 20 February 1808
Turner visited Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland, on his 1797 tour of the north of England. The religious history of Lindisfarne Priory dates from 635; monks from Durham built the Romanesque structure in the twelfth century. It fell into decay after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s; there were further collapses a few years after Turner’s visit,1 and much of the building above the first storey is now missing. Three other Liber Studiorum designs were based on drawings from the same tour: Dunstanborough Castle, The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey and Norham Castle on the Tweed (see Tate D08118, D08142, D08158; Turner Bequest CXVI Q, CXVII O, CXVIII D).
The present work is based on a pencil drawing in the North of England sketchbook (Tate D00962; Turner Bequest XXXIV 54); care is taken to express the complex recession of piers, walls and windows seen through the nearest arches, using both perspective and the fall of light. To assist with the latter, Turner may have consulted another view in the same book (D00958; XXXIV 50), which he had worked up in a series of brown washes similar to the tones used here to establish the masses of the structure and highlight the detailed stone carving. Wilton has suggested that the watercolour Holy Island Cathedral, Northumberland, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798 as one of several ‘North of England’ subjects but untraced since 1873,2 could have been the direct basis of the Liber composition, though nothing is known of it beyond its title. There are further detailed studies in the North of England sketchbook (Tate D00960, D00961, D00963; Turner Bequest XXXIV 52, 53, 55), as well as a distant view (D00959; XXXIV 51) which was used for the much later watercolour (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)3 engraved in 1830. for Picturesque Views in England and Wales.
David Hill4 and Greg Smith5 have discussed the likely influence of Turner’s friend Thomas Girtin, who had visited the site on his own northern tour in 1796 and exhibited two views at the Royal Academy in the following year (434 and 763),6 just before Turner set off; some of Turner’s sketches are from the same viewpoints as Girtin’s. In Modern Painters, Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’, with its ‘failing height of wasted shaft and wall’.7 The arcades are distantly recalled in Turner’s frontispiece for the Liber (see Tate D08150; Vaughan Bequest CXVII V).
The vanishing point appears to be in within the lower arch to the left and there is a slight awkwardness in Turner’s attempt to imply the recession of the arcades towards the right to a notional, far-distant vanishing point outside the picture space. He avoided attempting the same effect with the distant windows in his design for Rivaux Abbey, of about the same date (see Tate D08154; Turner Bequest CXVII Z). Turner’s general development around 1800 from oblique depictions of buildings in steep perspective, towards a ‘towering frontality’ in parallel with the picture plane, has been observed;8 here, he fills the entire composition with the arcades and emphasises their scale with three small, distant figures – reduced in number to two and made even smaller in the subsequent print. At the etching stage, Turner developed the figure towards the centre, adding a fishing basket, appropriately signifying the nearby coast,9 he employed a similar device in East Gate, Winchelsea (for Liber drawing, see Tate D08167; Turner Bequest CXVIII M).
The composition is recorded, as ‘2[:] 5 Holy Island’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12156; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 23a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)10 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.11 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Holy Island’, in a list of ‘Architecture’ subjects (Tate D12168; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 29a).12
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Charles Turner, bears the publication date 20 February 1808 and was issued to subscribers as ‘HOLY ISLAND CATHEDRAL.’ in part 2 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.7–11;13 see also Tate D08111–D08114; Turner Bequest CXVI J, K, L, M). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00931) and the published engraving (A00932). It is one of eleven published Liber subjects in Turner’s ‘Architectural’ category (see also Tate D08110, D08118, D08126, D08131, D08135, D08142, D08154, D08157, D08160; CXVI I, Q, Y, CXVII D, H, O, Z, CXVIII C, F).
Hill 1997, p.84.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.326 no.236.
Ibid., p.396 no.819, reproduced.
Hill 1997, pp.82, 84.
Greg Smith, Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2002, p.70 under no.44; see also pp.71 no.45 and 110–11 nos.84 and 85, all reproduced (colour).
Thomas Girtin and David Loshak, The Art of Thomas Girtin, London 1954, p.124; see also pp.142 no.67, 156–7 nos.163 and 164, 159 no.184.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Maurice Davies, Turner as Professor: The Artist and Linear Perspective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, p.70.
Brooke 1885, p.42.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.20–9; 1906, pp.24–36; Finberg 1924, pp.25–44.
Technical Notes:
Despite the complex composition, there is no underlying pencil work. The arches were outlined and shadows applied, followed by more details. The lights through the arches were reserved. Fine watercolour brushstrokes define the details, some of which are very straight, though presumably not ruled. The composition was gradually worked darker and darker from left to right, into progressive diagonal bands of shadow with no lights added. There is a spill of adventitious material over the central figure and column and below in the foreground, creating a slight surface sheen. The overall mid-brown colour results from a single burnt sienna pigment.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscription.
Inscribed in pencil ‘D08115’ bottom left
There are a few spatterings, apparently of brown wash.

Matthew Imms
August 2009

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Holy Island Cathedral c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-holy-island-cathedral-r1131717, accessed 23 July 2014.