Joseph Mallord William Turner

Norham Castle, on the River Tweed


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 156 × 216 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII O

Display caption

When he revisited the castle in 1831 Turner is reported to have said, 'I made a drawing or painting of Norham several years since. It took, and from that day to this I have had as much to do as my hands could execute.' In all his depictions the castle is seen at dawn, its dark form given emphasis by the rising sun beyond, an effect which must have been one of Turner's chief joys in repeating the subject so often. This watercolour was executed in the early 1820s for a group of views of the Rivers of England by which time he had already included a similar view in his Liber Studiorum.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Commanding a ford on the River Tweed, Norham was an important site in the defence of English borders from Scottish attack. Rendered in bleak silhouette against a sky of gold and blue hues, the oblong sail of the boat beneath the castle reinforces the rectilinearity of the upper part of its keep.1 This stretch of the Tweed marked the boundary between the two countries: Scotland on the left, indicated by the kilted figure wearing a Tam O’Shanter who draws in a net from the water’s edge, and England on the right. As Barbara Hofland writes, the site was ‘well calculated for a defensive and commanding fortress, being seated on a steep bank, which rises abruptly from the river’.2 After years of battle and decline, however, its ‘high, dismantled tower, massive fragments, and broken wall, hang in frowning but picturesque majesty’, inciting ‘more than usual interest from being the opening scene of Sir Walter Scott’s beautiful poem of “Marmion”’.3
Turner first visited and sketched Norham Castle in Northumberland on his 1797 tour (Tate D00682, Turner Bequest XXVII U). It became a recurring subject in his art, inspiring several watercolours and oil paintings including Norham Castle, Sunrise of 17984 and of about 1845 (Tate N01981). The composition of this watercolour is similar to that made in the North of England sketchbook of 1797 (Tate D00966; Turner Bequest XXXIV 57), although in comparison with the Liber Studiorum drawing of the same subject (Tate D08158; Turner Bequest CXVIII D) Turner has ‘contracted the width of the design and heightened both the stump of the tower and the cliff on which it sits’.5 Turner made other drawings of Norham in the Helmsley sketchbook of 1801 (Tate D02534–D02550; Turner Bequest LIII 42a–50) and the Abbotsford sketchbook of 1831 (Tate D26027; Turner Bequest CCLXVII 59a).
Norham was among the earliest subjects produced for the Rivers of England series. It was engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner and was issued on 1 January 1824 (Tate impressions T04799–T04801). Turner had also engraved the view of Norham in the Liber Studiorum (Tate impressions A01119, A01120).
Shanes 1990, p.106, no.81 (colour).
Hofland 1827, p.9.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.324–5, no.226. This drawing was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798, accompanied by lines of poetry from Thomson’s Seasons: ‘But yonder comes the powerful King of Day,/ Rejoicing in the East: the lessening cloud,/ The kindling azure, and the mountain’s brow/ Illumin’d – his near approach betoken glad; see Warrell 1991, p.30, no.10.
Warrell 1991, p.31, no.10.
Finley 1999, p.191.
Warrell 1991, p.31, no.10.
Finley 1973, p.386–7.
Bower 1999, p.41, no.13, reproduced.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

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