Joseph Mallord William Turner

Caernarvon Castle, North Wales

exhibited 1800

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 706 × 1055 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXX M

Display caption

Turner had visited Caernarvon Castle on his tour of Wales in 1798. Here he enriches a panoramic view of the castle and its surroundings with historical and literary associations. The Castle had been built by Edward I in the thirteenth century, and was a symbol of the oppression of the Welsh. Turner introduces a figure of a bard, lamenting his countrymen who had died during the English invasion. In this way he associates the scene with Thomas Gray’s popular poem on this theme, The Bard, while also drawing a parallel with the repressive wartime regime of the current British government.

Gallery label, February 2004

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Catalogue entry

This highly finished watercolour painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 with the following verses in the catalogue, probably by Turner himself:
And now on Arvon’s haughty tow’rs
The Bard the song of pity pours,
For oft on Mona’s distant hills he sighs,
Where jealous of the minstrel band,
The tyrant drench’d with blood the land,
And charm’d with horror, triumph’d in their cries,
The swains of Arvon round him throng,
And join the sorrows of his song.
It was the first time that Turner had shown a historical subject in watercolour at the Academy, though he had for the past four years been submitting increasingly ambitious subject matter in that medium, including in 1799 a view of Caernarvon Castle (private collection)1 which treated the topographical subject as a grand sunset harbour scene in the manner of Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682). The present author has argued that this large Caernarvon subject, with its crowd of figures listening to a Bard’s recitation, depicts Wales in peacetime, and that the large unfinished subject of an army marching through the mountains of Snowdonia (Tate D04168; Turner Bequest LXX Q) was intended as its wartime pendant.
Turner made many studies of dancing figures and of prophetic or Bardic old men in his Studies for Pictures sketchbook (Tate D04012–D04016, D04101; Turner Bequest LXIX 18–22, 87). There is also a study of a Bard playing his harp in the Dolbadarn sketchbook (Tate D01993; Turner Bequest XLVI 1). Other studies of figures possibly related to the subject occur elsewhere in that book. It seems likely that the large study or unfinished picture (Tate D04165; Turner Bequest LXX N) is a trial version of the same subject. This final version is based on a pencil study in the Lancashire and North Wales sketchbook (Tate D01986; Turner Bequest XLV 46), and the figures are imported or adapted from his other meditations on the theme. He unashamedly introduces extreme anachronism into his ancient Welsh scene: the Bard addresses his followers in a landscape that is plainly modern, with a handsome new house visible among the trees at the left, and the rigging of modern shipping visible in the river beside Caernarvon Castle, a huge fortification built by Edward I as part of his campaign to pacify Wales. Beyond Caernarfon are the low hills of Anglesey (Mona).
Wilton 1979, p.328 no.254, pl.47 (colour).

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

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