Turner first visited Durham in 1797, when he made several drawings of the cathedral. Two colour studies of Durham Cathedral with a rainbow, considerably earlier than this one, date from 1801 and are found in the Helmsley Sketchbook (Tate D02608–D02609; Turner Bequest LIII 97, 98). This loosely rendered colour study is thought to date from around 1817, when Turner visited Durham again and made numerous sketches of the cathedral (see the sequence Tate D12325–D12334; Turner Bequest CLVII 6–14).
The mostly unused lower part of this sheet includes a number of colour tests and some pencil lines indicating a bridge; within the colour study itself the bridge also seems to be suggested in the upper left of the composition. In style and technique it resembles the colour studies Turner made around this time for the History of Richmondshire (see the present author’s ‘Whitaker’s “Richmondshire” c.1816–20’ section in the current publication). Eric Shanes suggested that the study is a test sheet ‘probably intended for the history of Durham series’.1 As no finished watercolour resulted from this study its relationship with Surtees’s publication remains conjectural, although both stylistically and in terms of the many sketches Turner made of the cathedral that year, some connection to the 1817 tour is highly likely.
The study should also be considered in relation to another colour study made on the same piece of paper before the sheet was torn in two (see technical notes). The second colour study (Tate D25154; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 32) has been placed within a later section of the catalogue, dedicated to colour studies relating to Picturesque Views in England and Wales. It is possible – or likely – that the two colour studies were made around the same time, and the dating of both remains uncertain. The Picturesque Views in England and Wales includes a (not closely related) view of Durham Cathedral engraved after a watercolour of about 1836 now in the National Galleries of Scotland collection,2 and a test sheet or first thought for this series may be another possible function.