Joseph Mallord William Turner

Holy Island Cathedral


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 185 × 265 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVI N

Display caption

This view shows the columns in the nave of the priory church of Lindisfarne. It was one of four North of England subjects engraved in similar sepia colours for the Liber Studiorum, the group of mezzotints Turner worked on between 1806 and the early 1820s. Even before Turner's visit the remains of the nave had begun to fall, but by 1820 the arches in this view had collapsed completely. Turner chose a bold and original way of presenting the ruins, confronting the broken wall head-on, and elivening the expanse of stone with contrasting areas of light and shade.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘HOLY ISLAND CATHEDRAL.’, published Charles Turner, 20 February 1808
Turner visited Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland, on his 1797 tour of the north of England. The religious history of Lindisfarne Priory dates from 635; monks from Durham built the Romanesque structure in the twelfth century. It fell into decay after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s; there were further collapses a few years after Turner’s visit,1 and much of the building above the first storey is now missing. Three other Liber Studiorum designs were based on drawings from the same tour: Dunstanborough Castle, The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey and Norham Castle on the Tweed (see Tate D08118, D08142, D08158; Turner Bequest CXVI Q, CXVII O, CXVIII D).
The present work is based on a pencil drawing in the North of England sketchbook (Tate D00962; Turner Bequest XXXIV 54); care is taken to express the complex recession of piers, walls and windows seen through the nearest arches, using both perspective and the fall of light. To assist with the latter, Turner may have consulted another view in the same book (D00958; XXXIV 50), which he had worked up in a series of brown washes similar to the tones used here to establish the masses of the structure and highlight the detailed stone carving. Wilton has suggested that the watercolour Holy Island Cathedral, Northumberland, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798 as one of several ‘North of England’ subjects but untraced since 1873,2 could have been the direct basis of the Liber composition, though nothing is known of it beyond its title. There are further detailed studies in the North of England sketchbook (Tate D00960, D00961, D00963; Turner Bequest XXXIV 52, 53, 55), as well as a distant view (D00959; XXXIV 51) which was used for the much later watercolour (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)3 engraved in 1830. for Picturesque Views in England and Wales.
David Hill4 and Greg Smith5 have discussed the likely influence of Turner’s friend Thomas Girtin, who had visited the site on his own northern tour in 1796 and exhibited two views at the Royal Academy in the following year (434 and 763),6 just before Turner set off; some of Turner’s sketches are from the same viewpoints as Girtin’s. In Modern Painters, Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’, with its ‘failing height of wasted shaft and wall’.7 The arcades are distantly recalled in Turner’s frontispiece for the Liber (see Tate D08150; Vaughan Bequest CXVII V).
Hill 1997, p.84.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.326 no.236.
Ibid., p.396 no.819, reproduced.
Hill 1997, pp.82, 84.
Greg Smith, Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2002, p.70 under no.44; see also pp.71 no.45 and 110–11 nos.84 and 85, all reproduced (colour).
Thomas Girtin and David Loshak, The Art of Thomas Girtin, London 1954, p.124; see also pp.142 no.67, 156–7 nos.163 and 164, 159 no.184.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Maurice Davies, Turner as Professor: The Artist and Linear Perspective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, p.70.
Brooke 1885, p.42.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.20–9; 1906, pp.24–36; Finberg 1924, pp.25–44.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2009

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