Joseph Mallord William Turner

Merton College, Oxford


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 294 × 432 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 349

Display caption

Unlike most of the watercolours in this display, this work is fully resolved and would have been considered 'finished'
by Turner and his contemporaries. It
was probably intended to form part
of the long series of watercolours that were published in engraved form as Picturesque Views in England and
Wales between 1827 and 1839.


Turner had been a regular visitor to Oxford since his adolescence. He
was repeatedly called on to record
its architecture in pictures intended
for commercial reproduction. Here
he focuses on repairs taking place to Merton College, rooting his ethereal scene in essential practicalities.


Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Merton College, founded in the thirteenth century and the oldest of Oxford University’s colleges,1 is shown on the south side of Merton Street, looking west-south-west from near the junction with Logic Lane towards the tower and north transept of the college chapel in the middle distance and Corpus Christi College beyond. The low gabled buildings on the opposite side of the narrow lane are also recognisable today. The composition is based on a relatively slight pencil drawing, hemmed in by a multitude of auxiliary details of windows, mouldings and tracery, in the Oxford sketchbook (Tate D27929; Turner Bequest CCLXXXV 23a), likely to have been in use during a visit on other business in July 1834;2 for other later compositions in and around the city, see the ‘Oxford Subjects’ subsection of ‘England and Wales Colour Studies c.1825–39’ in the present catalogue.
Much has been written concerning Turner’s Oxford subject matter in general, which occupied him sporadically from the late 1780s to the end of the 1830s. The most extensive accounts are Patrick Youngblood’s3 and Colin Harrison’s,4 while Andrew Kennedy has provided a concise summary.5 Merton’s chapel tower is seen from other directions in drawings of as early as 1792–3 (Tate D00116, D00129; Turner Bequest VIII B, XI D), while the watercolour Merton College from the Meadows of about 1801 (private collection)6 shows the buildings in the bucolic landscape setting which still survives to their south.
The present composition is accepted as having been intended to be included in Turner’s major series of Picturesque Views in England and Wales7 (see the Introduction to this section); Eric Shanes has noted that its ‘subject, symbolism, size and handling’ justify this assumption.8 Although as complete and elaborate as any of the watercolours produced for the print project, it was not engraved and may have been too late to be included as the scheme tailed off in 1838; it is the only finished work in England and Wales mode to have remained in Turner’s studio and thus the Turner Bequest. It may have been a notional pendant to the watercolour Christ Church College, Oxford (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)9 of about 1832, which had been engraved in 1834 (Tate impression: T06108) and shows the college receding towards the left, with another varied cast of builders, dogs and dons in the foreground.10
See Shanes 1990, p.259, Warrell 1993, p.200, and Warrell 1994, p.202.
See Shanes 1979, p.156, Stainton 1982, p.31, Warrell and Perkins 1988, p.21, Shanes 1990, p.259, Lyles 1992, p.54, Warrell 1993, pp.304–5, Warrell 1994, p.202, Shanes 1997, p.86, Harrison 2000, p.105, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
Youngblood 1984, pp.3–21.
Harrison 2000.
Andrew Kennedy, ‘Oxford’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.208–9.
Wilton 1979, p.346 no.408, reproduced.
Ibid., p.391, noting it without further comment among those unengraved designs ‘which appear to have been intended for the work’; see also Stainton 1982, p.31, Wilton 1987, p.101, Warrell and Perkins 1988, p.18, Lyles 1992, p.54, Warrell 1993, p.304, Warrell 1994, p.202, Shanes 1997, p.86, Harrison 2000, p.91, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
Shanes 1979, p.48; see also Shanes 1990, p.259.
Wilton 1979, p.400 no.853.
See Stainton 1982, p.31, Lyles 1992, p.54, Harrison 2000, p.91, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
See Shanes 1990, p.259, and Harrison 2000, p.91.
‘Views of Merton College’, The Victorian Web, reproduced, accessed 21 June 2016,
See also Lyles 1992, p.54, Warrell 1993, p.305, Warrell 1994, p.202, Harrison 2000, p.91, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
Shanes 1979, p.48; see also Shanes 1990, p.259, with slight variations.
Lyles 1992, p.55.
Wilton 1979, p.417 no.990, reproduced.
Stainton 1982, p.31.
Shanes 1990, p.259.
Powell 1998, p.12.
Youngblood 1984, pp.18–19.
Harrison 2000, p.91.
Wilton 1979, p.333 no p.300, reproduced.
See Wilton 1979, pp.333–3 nos.295–306.
Finberg 1909, II, p.841.
White 1896, p.17 no.16.
Wilton 1979, p.333 no.297, reproduced.
White 1896, p.19.
See Harrison 2000, p.105.

Matthew Imms
June 2016

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