George Cumberland

Inside the Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
George Cumberland 1754–1849
Watercolour on paper
Support: 146 × 219 mm
Presented by William Drummond 1978

Display caption

George Cumberland is usually remembered today for his friendship with Blake, whom he knew and corresponded with for over forty years, and also as a patron of the Bristol School of Artists. As well as a man of letters, a tireless traveller in England and Wales and a compiler of several guide-books, Cumberland was an amateur artist of some talent. The drawings he made as records of his travels are remarkable in their directness of observation, and often reflect his keen interest in geology. In this view of the Peak Cavern, the only source of illumination is provided by flickering candlelight.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘2d view of the Choir as it is called, on turning a/point beyond -GC’ in pencil verso
Watercolour, 5 13/16 × 8 11/16 14.9 × 22.2)
Presented by William Drummond 1978
Prov: From one of two albums of English and Welsh views assembled by Cumberland's daughter Eliza from the artist's sketchbooks of c.1815–28; by family descent, sold as ‘The Property of a Lady’, Sotheby's, 15 July 1976 (15, four repr.), bt. William Drummond, Covent Garden Gallery.
Exh: George Cumberland, Covent Garden Gallery, 1977 (30).

‘A combination of more horrid ideas is rarely found, than this place affords’, remarked the Rev. William Gilpin after visiting 'that celebrated chasm, near Castleton, called the Devil's cave’ (Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the year 1772, 1786, pp.213–4). The Devil's cave, sometimes called Peak's Hole (and now generally known as the Peak Cavern), had been ‘celebrated’ for at least six centuries before the eighteenth, and continues to attract visitors to the present day. Cumberland might have read, besides Gilpin's remarks, the more detailed accounts given by James Pilkington in A View of the Present State of Derbyshire, 1789 and by Stephen Glover in The Peak Guide, 1830.

Besides T02304, the 1977 George Cumberland exhibition included seven other drawing of the Peak Cavern. No.24 (still with the Covent Garden Gallery), inscribed ‘View of the castle of Castleton and the Cave below’, shows the approach to the cavern, via a path which wound down from the ruined castle of Castleton to a deep recess formed by two high limestone cliffs bisected by the emergent River Styx. No.25 (repr. pl.1, now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon) focusses on the cavern's vast arched entrance, some twelve yards high, forty yards wide and nearly a hundred yards long. Gilpin had commented that ‘So vast a canopy of unpillared rock stretching over head, gives you an involuntary shudder’ (op.cit., p.215); but Cumberland, while effectively conveying the mass of the limestone arch, concentrates on actualities, and in particular on the ancient colony of pack-thread spinners established in the cave. No.26 (‘Figure of one of the old women who live under the cave in a cottage that never sees the sun’, now in a private collection, England), no.27, showing a spinner at work (still with the Covent Garden Gallery) and no. 28, inscribed ‘appearance and Colour at Coming out from Peaks hole...’ (private collection, England) are view within the first ‘great cave’. No.29 (private collection, America) depicts the entrance to an inner cave, ‘to which you are conveyed in a flat bottomed oval boat laying on your back on straw and pushed forward by a guide who wades about 2 foot deep in water, and stooping guides the vessel into this cavern’. Cumberland's inscription on this drawing continues: ‘The light above proceeds from Candles already placed there’.

T02304 is a view within this inner cavern. Pilkington (op.cit., pp. 64–65) reported the dimensions of this cavern as seventy yards wide and forty high: ‘but not a ray of light can enter it, excepting that which proceeds from a single candle, which he carries with him, and the faint glimmering of this tends only to render him sensible of the extreme darkness and horror of the place’. Candlelight, flickering and fitful, provides the only source of illumination in T02304. A single minute figure is glimpsed standing high on the steep ascent leading to a high rock sometimes known as ‘the Choir’ (as in Cumberland's inscription) or ‘the Chancel’: ‘here is sometimes placed, in order to surprise the visitors, a choir of the High Peak singers... under the direction of the parish clerk of Castleton. The sharp and nasal tones of these choristers are not always in unison with each other, but they are far from being out of tune with what may be supposed the ideas of visitors in “these lower regions, where darkness holds an everlasting reign”’ (Glover, op. cit., p.67). Another view inside the inner cavern, No.31 in the Cumberland exhibition, is now in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Gilpin's description of the Peak Cavern was larded with currently fashionable romantic words such as ‘horrid’, ‘tremendous’, ‘terror’ and ‘shudder’, though he, an arbiter of the picturesque, concluded that he ‘never found any picturesque beauty’ in such infernal regions (op. cit., pp.214–5). Pilkington and Glover echo, though more faintly, the same attitude to ‘awfulness’. Cumberland by contrast observed the natural phenomena of Derbyshire, as he observed landscape in general, with an eye for whatever he found interesting in its own right. Unaffected by current notions of the picturesque, his watercolours are chiefly based on detached and rational observation.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981


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