Joseph Mallord William Turner

Llandaff: The West Front of the Cathedral


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 356 × 255 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XXVIII A

Display caption

Turner shows several figures in a graveyard. Two girls are dancing on a tombstone to a fiddler's tune. Turner's use of such a motif in this context is a telling allusion to Time and the contrast between Life and Death. Through it, Turner links himself to a tradition of graveyard meditations which embraces Edward Young and Thomas Gray (no.48). With Turner, as with Blake (see no.49), the way this tradition could inform the Romantic sensibility and even touch life itself can be seen in both artist's associations with Westminster Abbey. In a 1793 watercolour of the interior of the Abbey, Turner's signature is put as an inscription on a floor slab as though it is his own tombstone.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

This is a pencil and watercolour composition on off-white wove Whatman paper. The pencil under-drawing in this image is minimal and most of the detail, such as the lettering on the tombstone, has been painted directly in watercolour. The arches have pencilled outlines, but most of the modelling for the columns has been done with a single graded wash applied carefully and locally: that is, a wash using a single colour swept out to paler tones with water. Many details are depicted by leaving reserves of white paper between the washes, as has been done for many of the building blocks. The dancers’ costumes have been depicted in very fine detail, though the faces are minimally depicted.
A very limited palette has been used for most of the subject, two shades of ochre, indigo (probably), green mixed from indigo and a yellow pigment for the foreground, with a slightly wider range of colours for the costumes. Unusually for Turner, some grey washes are made from black pigment only, in contrast to his usual practice of mixing blue and red together. Here, he has not used any pure red pigment, which means it would not have been set out on his palette ready for immediate use in a mixture.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
February 2011

Catalogue entry

This watercolour is based on a pencil drawing in the South Wales sketchbook (Tate D00556; Turner Bequest XXVI 4). Commissioned by Dr Matthews (see the list of ‘Order’d Drawings’ near the front of the South Wales book, Tate D40557), it was probably the work shown at the Royal Academy in 1796 (701). For a possible source for the dancing figures in the foreground see the South Wales view of the gateway of the Bishop’s Palace at St David’s (Tate D00593; Turner Bequest XXVI 39).
Finberg dismisses this watercolour as ‘merely the work of a clever and skilful topographical draughtsman ... When the artist has told us as clearly and precisely as possible the exact shape of every object from his chosen point of view, we feel that he has done all that he set out to do, and all that we can reasonably demand of him. Then these objects are left standing side by side in relative independence of each other and of us; they have no necessary connection one with the other ... Their only bond of union is the abstract one of space. The whole effect is of something severed from direct experience; the objects have an unreal air of permanence and immutability, with something of the intellectual coldness and aloofness of a diagram or mathematical symbol.’1
These strictures are prompted by a comparison with the watercolour of the Interior of Ewenny Priory that Turner exhibited in 1797 (National Museum Wales, Cardiff);2 and see the Smaller South Wales sketchbook, Tate D00472; Turner Bequest XXV 11), which is a technically more sophisticated work But they do less than justice to the expressive subtlety of Turner’s conception in the Llandaff. The figures of old men gossiping and young people dancing to a fiddle, though deliberately introduced on a small scale to emphasise the majestic proportions of the cathedral, are carefully devised to point up the themes of the subject: the passing of time, youth, age, and the contrast between antiquity and modernity, the spiritual and the mundane.
Finberg 1910, pp.29–30.
Wilton 1979, p.325 no.227, pl.28.
Blank; not stamped.

Andrew Wilton
April 2012

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