Turner made just two sketches in preparation for his watercolour, Edinburgh from Calton Hill, circa 1819 (National Gallery of Scotland),1 commissioned for the Provincial Antiquities of Scotland (see Scotland 1818 Tour Introduction). The first is a quick but precise single page sketch in the Bass Rock and Edinburgh sketchbook (Tate D13430; Turner Bequest CLXV 59a), testing the view and composition of the subject. The second is a careful and detailed panorama of the view across the present page, and continuing on folios 42 and 43 (D13652, D13654; CLXVII 40, 41). Turner seems to have had no doubts about his subject and composition, and presumably made the single page sketch first as a practice before deciding to alter his vantage point slightly (moving to the north) and beginning his most intricate and detailed drawing of the 1818 Scottish tour.
There were, however, precedents to follow; the view was known as one of Edinburgh’s most impressive and was described by Walter Scott as ‘one of the most magnificent scenes in this romantic city’.2 Turner had seen it in 1801, and in 1804 he exhibited a watercolour of Edinburgh from Calton Hill at the Royal Academy (Tate D03639; Turner Bequest LX H). The new view varies considerable however from that rather pastoral vision by concentrating on ‘the “daring spirit of modern improvement” represented by the development of Regent Bridge and Waterloo Place at the foot of Calton Hill’.3 It is nevertheless still remarkable how close his final design was to this plein air sketch, suggesting that Turner was able to envisage the final work as he stood sketching this view.
Turner stood at a high point on the west of Calton Hill, perhaps at the base or even the top of Nelson’s Monument, and looked south-west across the city towards the castle. Two figures stand just beneath him, one sitting, one standing, both admiring the view and recalling Turner’s own act of looking.4 In front of the figures, and dominating the bottom half of the present page, is the once mighty Calton Gaol, built in 1808 to replace the Canongate Tolbooth, but now largely demolished apart from the central turreted section of the Governors’ House to make way for St Andrew’s House (see Tate D13434; Turner Bequest CLXV 61a).
Wilton 1979, p.426 no.1062.
Walter Scott, The Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland with Descriptive Illustrations by Sir Walter Scott, Bart., Volume II, London and Edinburgh 1826, p..
Thomson 1999, pp. 26–7, 31, 85 reproduced
One of the figures may even represent Turner, as in his watercolour of Melrose, 1831 (National Gallery of Scotland) where the artist is shown sitting on a hill with his hosts, sketching the view; see Wilton 1979, p.428 no.1080.
Finberg, 1910, pp.107–8.
Finberg 1910, p.108
Wilkinson 1974, reproduced p.178.
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