Joseph Mallord William Turner

High Street, Edinburgh


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 112 x 186 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXVII 64 a

Catalogue entry

Drawn with the book inverted is a double-page sketch of Edinburgh High Street (continuing on folio 68; D13702; CLXVII 65). From the Lawnmarket we look towards St Giles’s Cathedral with Tron Kirk behind it to the left, and down the Royal Mile towards Canongate. This drawing and others of the High Street were made in preparation for an illustration to the Provincial Antiquities, for which Turner, in deference to the poet, asked Walter Scott (through Edward Blore) for his preferred view.1
Other views of the High Street in this sketchbook are from the corner of South Bridge looking west (folio 67 verso; D13701; CLXVII 64a) and from just east of St Giles’s looking west (folios 39 verso–40; D13648–D13649; CLXVII 37a–38). A sketch in the Bass Rock and Edinburgh sketchbook (folio 52 verso; Tate D13412; Turner Bequest CLXV 50a) may have been a preparation for the present more finished drawing, which in turn formed the basis of the watercolour of Edinburgh High Street, circa 1818 (Yale Center for British Art, USA).2
A comparison of the sketch and watercolour reveal a close reliance on the sketch, but with the perspective and proportions manipulated. The buildings are the same and the people and their activities are comparable and in the same spirit, if not identical. In shifting the design from a wide to a relatively square format Turner did not crop the sides of the picture, or add anything to the top. Instead he compressed everything in the picture, and made the perspective more acute. Katrina Thomson has also noted that the bends of the street were straightened out and that the street-side of ‘St Giles was cut back to allow an uninterrupted vista of the tenements descending to the Tron Kirk’.3 As well as enabling Turner to fit more into a narrower format, this manipulation also brings St Giles closer to the picture plane and increases the relative size of the objects and people in the foreground. The composition is also tightened and simplified, making for a bolder and more effective image.

Thomas Ardill
March 2008

Thomson 1999, p.29.
Wilton 1979, p.426 no.1061.
Thomson 1999, p.84.

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