Joseph Mallord William Turner

Composition Study: Caernarvon Castle with a Low Sun


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Support: 140 × 216 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XLIII 39 a

Catalogue entry

Made with the page turned horizontally, this study is closely related to the very similar oil study on panel (Tate N01867);1 both are connected with the evolution of the large finished watercolour that Turner exhibited in 1799 as Caernarvon Castle (private collection).2 The final work shows the castle, seen from the east, looming dark against a hot sunset. It exhibits for the first time in Turner’s output the full influence of Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), but it is clear, too, that he was very much under the spell of Richard Wilson (1713–1782), who had painted several views of Caernarvon from the east.
The use of densely expressive gouache as an equivalent for oil paint recalls Turner’s practice in the earlier Wilson sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest XXXVII), where he explored the interrelationship of the media for the first time. His decision to execute the subject in watercolour may reflect his determination at this date to demonstrate conclusively that the medium was as capable of profound expression as oil. This small work is so intense in its effect that it seems to be capable of bearing the import of the verses from Amyntor and Theodora by David Mallet (1705–1765) that Turner printed with the title in the Academy catalogue:
                        Now rose
Sweet Evening, solemn hour, the sun declin’d
Hung golden o’er this nether firmament,
Whose broad cerulean mirror, calmly bright,
Gave back his beamy visage to the sky
With splendour undiminish’d.3
There are further studies for a composition including Caernarvon Castle on folios 42 verso, 43 recto and verso, 44 recto and verso, and 45 verso (D01860–D01864, D01866; Turner Bequest XLIII 41a, 42, 42a, 43, 43a, 44a).

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.22–3 no.28, pl.23 (colour).
Wilton 1979, p.328 no.254, pl.47 (colour).
Quoted ibid.

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