Joseph Mallord William Turner

Kirkstall Lock, on the River Aire


Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 159 × 235 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII L

Catalogue entry

‘Although it is nominally a ‘Picturesque View’ on the River Aire, this watercolour summarises with characteristic comprehensiveness the social and economic history of the spot’, write Ann Chumbley and Ian Warrell.1 The drawing depicts the ‘interplay of modernism and history’2: Turner juxtaposing the ruins of the medieval Cistercian monastery at the banks of the Aire in the middle distance with the foregrounded labours of quarry masons on the left and boatmen readying their craft to pass through the Lock onto the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on the right. ‘Leeds’ is seen inscribed in paint on one of the sailing barges. According to art historian Stephen Daniels, these vessels were ‘an essential ingredient of the iconography of Leeds in topographical depictions of the city’, so much so that they featured in contemporary poetry.3 In his poem The Fleece John Dyer exhorts ‘Roll the full cars down the winding Aire/Load the slow sailing barges’ while John Nicholson celebrates the river’s barges’ ‘sails unfurling in commercial pride’ in his Airedale.4
The Aire had been made navigable in 1699 and construction of the Canal in 1770 provided the industrial city of Leeds and its neighbouring towns access to ports, markets, and sources of raw materials.5 The scene is taken from Kirkstall Brewery and also incorporates the Leeds and Bradford turnpike, marked out by the dashing coach and horses.6 In all, this is an image in which ‘Turner emphasises how times are changing and how, through laying strong foundations, Britons were harnessing their land’.7 Notwithstanding, the art historian David Hill has also suggested that in this drawing Turner highlights the increasing dominance of road travel over river. Hill points out that the bridge was ‘too low to allow the barges to pass without lowering their sails and masts’ and that it did not accommodate the canal and the path for tow horses in the same span.8 The result of these problems present itself in the ‘bottleneck of canal traffic’ which is show in direct contrast to the freely moving road traffic.9
Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.47, no.45 reproduced.
Rodner 1997, p.95.
Daniels 1986, p.15.
John Dyer, The Poetical Works of John Dyer, Oxford 1779, ‘The Fleece’, Book III, p.103, lines 312–3 and John Nicholson, Airedale in Ancient Times, London 1825,; both quoted in Daniels 1986, p.15.
Warrell, Kelly, et al 2007, p.109, no.70 reproduced (colour).
Rodner 1997, p.96.
Hamilton 1998, p.95–6.
Hill 2008, p.179.
Hofland 1827, pp.15–6, pl.12.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

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