Joseph Mallord William Turner

Kirkstall Abbey, with the Adoration of the Shepherds


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 254 x 200 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXX R

Display caption

This sketch is based on a view of Kirkstall Abbey in the Tweed and Lakes sketchbook. There the view is of the south aisle and nave from the south transept, but in this pen and ink study Turner has reversed the whole composition, perhaps contemplating the process involved when engraving an image. The romantic ruins seem to be the setting for a nativity subject. This is confirmed by the figure groups sketched above the main design, where a woman is seen cradling and wrapping a baby. The style suggests a date of between 1800 and 1805, a period when Turner frequently made tentative drafts for historical subjects, one of which resulted in his 1803 oil painting of the Holy Family (T1).

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

The lower part of the sheet is filled with a study in brown wash and pen, and shows figures in a ruin. Turner scholar David Hill suggests that this is Kirkstall Abbey and compares the study in the Tweed and Lakes sketchbook (Tate D01083; Turner Bequest XXXV 81). Although not conclusive, this seems likely. The figures on the other hand are clearly intended to represent the Adoration of the Shepherds, the group in the illuminated arch including the Virgin and Child who are studied in more detail in the small pen sketches in the top half of the sheet. To the left, one shepherd looks towards the light, carrying a crook.
This is the first known instance of Turner’s tackling a religious subject. He was to take up the theme again in a Holy Family picture exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 (Tate N00473).1 A rough sketch in the Calais Pier book (Tate D04935; Turner Bequest LXXXI 34), presumably made around 1803–5, appears to show a Nativity scene with the Adoration of the Shepherds. It is perhaps worth recording here the interest Turner took in Joshua Reynolds’s famous design for the west window of New College Chapel, Oxford, which takes the form of an Adoration of the Shepherds in which Reynolds (1723–1792) casts himself as one of the shepherds, a figure carefully copied by Turner into his drawing of the chapel made in 1798–1800 (Tate D02347; Turner Bequest L F).
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.38 – 9 no.49, pl.60.
Technical notes:
The lower right corner has been torn away, and the sheet folded horizontally, just above the centre.
Blank; a paint splash; stamped in brown ink with Turner Bequest monogram.

Andrew Wilton
January 2013

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