Joseph Mallord William Turner

Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland

exhibited 1798

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Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1229 × 899 mm
frame: 1468 × 1135 × 130 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

The mountain is Coniston Old Man, Cumbria, which Turner saw in 1797. This was the first picture that he elevated by quoting poetry in the Royal Academy catalogue. He chose lines from Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’, describing the 'mists and exhalations' of the atmosphere at sunrise. These shifting airs and lights, and flock of sheep running before them, give the landscape a natural drama and intensity. A reviewer in 1798 remarked ‘This artist's works discover a strength of mind which is not [sic] often the concomitant of much longer experience: and their effect in oil or on paper is equally sublime.’

Gallery label, March 2010

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Catalogue entry

5. [N00461] Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland Exh. 1798

Canvas, 48 3/8 × 35 5/16 (123 × 89·7); about 1 (2·5) made up at top and 1/4 (0·7) at sides and along bottom.

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (74, ‘Waterfall’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1798 (196); Tate Gallery 1931 (5); Amsterdam, Berne, Paris, Brussels, Liege (1), Venice and Rome (2) 1947–8; The Viewfinders, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, May–July 1980 (58); The Discovery of the Lake District, 1750–1810, Grasmere and Wordsworth Museum, May–October 1982 (139, repr.); Paris 1983–4 (1, repr.); Birmingham 1984; Victoria and Albert Museum 1984–5.

Lit. Farington Diary 5 January 1798; Cunningham 1852, p. 6; Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 258, 264; ii, 332; 1877, p. 92, 419, 530; Bell 1901, p. 27 no. 85; Armstrong 1902, p. 220; Davies 1946, p. 187; Clare 1951, p. 20, repr. p. 19; Finberg 1961, pp. 45, 48–9, 460 no. 40; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 10, pl. 10; Lindsay 1966, p. 60; Watson 1971, pp. 111–3; Wilton 1980, pp. 39–40; Ziff 1982, p. 2.

Exhibited in 1798, the first year verses were allowed in the R.A. catalogue, with the lines:

              'Ye mists and exhalations that now rise
'From hill or streaming lake, dusky or gray,
'Till the sun paints your fleecy skirts with gold,
‘In honour to the world's great Author, rise’.

Milton Par. Lost, Book V

(In line two Milton's original word is ‘steaming’.)

The picture represents Coniston Old Man in Lancashire, which Turner had visited during his tour of the north of England, including the Lake District, in the Summer of 1797; there is a pencil drawing, inscribed ‘Old Man’, in the ‘Tweed and Lakes’ sketchbook (XXXV-57). This is close to the painting in general composition, though Turner has altered the trees and introduced such details as the flock of sheep in the centre of the picture; the whole feeling of atmospheric depth at the top of the picture is also new. In addition the Turner Bequest includes one or two watercolour beginnings of the Coniston Old Man in oblong format (XXXVI-L and ?U).

A watercolour of c. 1797, 10 × 14 1/4 in., was sold at Christie's 15 November 1983 (170, repr. in colour). The composition, oblong in format, is much less dramatic (repr. Wilton 1979, p. 325 no. 230). Indeed, the unusual upright composition of Turner's oil leads John Gage (exh. cat., Paris 1983–4) to suggest the influence of works by Gaspard Dughet such as The Falls of Tivoli, engraved in 1744 (Wallace Collection, London); for Turner, Gaspard was the master of stormy weather.

Thornbury, after correctly identifying this picture as the work exhibited in 1798, goes on to mention it again with the works of 1802.

Farington, on 5 January 1798, recorded a conversation with Hoppner who, having visited Turner's studio and seen this picture and no. 7 [N00460], ‘mentioned 2 pictures by Turner—Rainbow and Waterfall—a timid man afraid to venture’.

For the Whitehall Evening Post of 10–12 May 1798 the picture was ‘A beautiful and well-executed landscape. The distance is so admirably preserved, as to induce a momentary deception, and appears as if the Spectator might actually walk into the picture.’ Speaking of Turner's works at the 1798 R.A. Exhibition in general the Oracle wrote, 23 April 1798: ‘W. Turner has a variety of Picture worthy the attention of the Cognoscenti. He takes a distinguished lead in the present Exhibition, and rises far superior to our expectation on forming an opinion of his previous works.’ Similarly the Monthly Magazine for July 1798: ‘TURNER.— This artist's works discover a strength of mind which is not [sic] often the concomitant of much longer experience: and their effect in oil or on paper is equally sublime. He seems thoroughly to understand the mode of adjusting and applying his various materials; and, while colours and varnish are deluding one half of the profession from the path of truth and propriety, he despises these ridiculous superficial expedients, and adhers to nature and the original and unerring principles of the art.’

There are minor losses of paint along the top and sides and also where the picture has been slightly overcleaned in the past.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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