Joseph Mallord William Turner

Okehampton, on the Okement


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 163 × 229 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII E

Catalogue entry

Okehampton Castle was built in the eleventh century shortly after the Norman Conquest as a ‘defensible administrative centre, a home, and as an awesome symbol of power to be seen across the countryside’.1 It became the estate of the Courtenay family, the Earls of Devon, but was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538 following a dispute with Marquis who was later executed. The building was left a collapsing ruin.
The height of the castle is slightly augmented because of the low viewpoint of the drawing, serving to amplify its symbolic presence. A rubble of rocks, boulders and timbers form the banks of the River Okement where a woodcutter stands, axe in hand, in front of a woman and infant. The vivid blue of the woman’s skirt and the bold red and white striped hat of the axman lifts the predominantly tertiary palette of the drawing.
The figures, for Eric Shanes, represent a sense of ‘renewal’2, whilst Julian Bryant writes that Turner may have ‘intended some allusion to the destruction of the family line in his foreground group’: the felling of trees representative of the dynastic ruin which befell the Courtenays.3
The knarling shapes formed by the tree trunk in the centre foreground and the forked upper branches of the tall trees on the right parallel the eroding form of old Okehampton Castle. A site of antiquarian interest, contemporary association theory would have offered a wealth of symbolic and emblematic content with which to interpret Turner’s depiction of the monument: organicist themes of inevitable, temporal decay and the regeneration which springs from ruin.
For other views of Okehampton Castle, see Turner’s Devonshire Rivers, No.3 and Wharfedale sketchbook of about 1812–5 (Tate D09814–D09816, D09823–D09833, D09868, D09871, D09872; Turner Bequest CXXXIV 22–4, 40–50, 67, 70, 71). See also his Devon Rivers, No.1 sketchbook of about 1812–3 (Tate D09520–D09533, D09539; Turner Bequest CXXXII 37–50, 56).
This drawing was engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner and published in 1825 (Tate impression T04805–T04807).
Bryant 1996, p.48, reproduced in colour p.49.
Shanes 1990, p.109, no.83 (colour).
Bryant 1996, p.48.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

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