Joseph Mallord William Turner

Dryburgh Abbey


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 79 × 149 mm
Bequeathed by Beresford Rimington Heaton 1940

Display caption

Early in 1831 Turner was commissioned to supply the illustrations for a new edition of Sir Walter Scott's 'Poetical Works'. In the summer of that year he travelled to Scotland, and in the Border country made numerous sketches which he later adapted into finished watercolours, such as this one of Dryburgh Abbey. The watercolour was engraved by William Miller in 1833, and published as a frontispiece to volume five of the 'Poetical Works'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Robert Cadell 1832; Beresford Rimington Heaton, by whom bequeathed to the Tate Gallery 1940
This small, almost postcard-sized watercolour was painted to be engraved as the frontispiece illustration to the Sir Tristrem volume (5) of Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works; Turner painted it the same size as the engraving, making it easier for William Miller to copy it on the steel plate (1834, Tate T04950).1
The subject shows Dryburgh Abbey, which lies about halfway between Selkirk and Kelso in the Scottish Borders, as seen from near the village of St Boswells across the River Tweed to the south. In the distance at the left are the twin peaks of the Eildon Hills, and just to the upper right of centre is a white shape representing the statue of William Wallace that stands on a hill near Bemerside. The statue was commissioned by the eleventh Earl of Buchan. The composition, with the wide loop of the river, has been compared to several other works by Turner including The Crook of Lune, Looking towards Hornby Castle circa 1816–18 (watercolour, Courtauld Institute Gallery, London),2 and Château Gaillard from the East circa 1833 (Tate D24678; Turner Bequest CCLIX 133).3
Turner has used the common trope of including figures in the foreground who survey the scene ahead of them (and us). One of the figures may be a child, inspired perhaps by Alick and Jamey Tod (or Todd), the sons of a local acquaintance of Robert Cadell’s who accompanied Turner and Cadell to the abbey.4 More figures populate the scene, with three on the path at the left and further figures standing on the opposite bank and wading in the water.
The watercolour was based on sketches in the Abbotsford sketchbook, made by Turner during his visit to the abbey in the company of Robert Cadell on 8 August 1831. Turner stayed at Abbotsford with Sir Walter Scott between 4–9 August, and was taken to various local sites by Cadell and sometimes by Scott to see and sketch subjects to be illustrated for a new edition of Scott’s Poetical Works.5
Rawlinson 1908 and 1913, II, p.280 no.501.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.366 no.575. This comparison was first made in Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.100.
This comparison was made by Anne Lyles 1992, p.45.
Robert Cadell, ‘Abbotsford Diary’, MS Acc.5188, Box 1, National Library of Scotland, quoted in Finley 1972, p.382.
See Finley 1972 and Finley 1980.
Anne Lyles, Turner: The Fifth Decade: Watercolours 1830–1840, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, p.44.
Robert Cadell to Sir Walter Scott, 1 August 1831, MS 3919 folios 2v, in Adele M. Holcomb, ‘Turner and Scott’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.34, 1971, p.392.
Alexander J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Second Edition, Revised, with a Supplement, by Hilda F. Finberg, revised ed., Oxford 1961, p.334.

Thomas Ardill
August 2010

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