This study depicts Gordale Scar, near Malham in the Craven Dales area of Yorkshire. This 100-metre deep limestone chasm was first popularised by Thomas Gray whose account of his visit in 1769 became the basis of response for visitors for at least the next forty years:
The rock on the left rises perpendicular with stubbed yew trees and shrubs, starting from its side to the height of at least 300 feet; but those are not the things: it is that to the right under which you stand to see the fall, the forms the principal horror of the place. From its very base it begins to slope forwards over you in one black and solid mass without any crevice in its surface and overshadows half the area below with its dreadful canopy... I stayed here (not without shuddering) a quarter of an hour, and thought my trouble richly paid, for the impression will last for life.1
It can be no coincidence that Turner situated himself exactly under Gray’s overhang to make this study.
This is one of the largest sketches in the Turner Bequest. From the vigour of its handling and the spatters and accidental marks, and from the very precise and specific correspondence to the site as seen from under Gray’s overhang, it looks very much as if it has been painted direct from nature. If so, it would be one of the most ambitious plein air sketches on paper that Turner ever made. However, although uniquely coloured, seemingly with the addition of oil, it sits with a group of ten unusually large pencil sketches of Wharfedale and Washburn Valley subjects, D12110, D12111, D11212, D12115, D12116, D12117, D12118, D12119, D12120 and D12121 (Turner Bequest CLIV L, M, N, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W). These can be dated to 1808 or thereabouts and that would conform to the stylistic date of the present study. Its colour range is also quite comparable to that of a series of large oil sketches of Thames subjects in the Turner Bequest that Turner made in the immediately preceding years.2 However, the present writer and other scholars have considered and alternative dating of 1816, when Turner visited the site in the company of the Fawkes family.3 On the latter occasion he made six sketches in the Yorkshire 2 sketchbook (beginning with Tate D11335; Turner Bequest CXLV 169) and another in the Yorkshire 5 sketchbook (Tate D11574; Turner Bequest CXLVII 30a). Although these explore the same material, none adopts exactly the same viewpoint.
Quoted from the version of Gray’s 1769 tour to the Lakes and parts of the north of England given in Thomas West, A Guide to the Lakes, (1778) 3rd edition, London 1784, p.218.
These are fully discussed in David Hill, Turner on the Thames: River Journeys in the Year 1805, New Haven and London, 1993; see also Hill, ‘Thames Sketches, 1805’, in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.333–6.
Hill, Warburton and Tussey 1980, p.27.