Joseph Mallord William Turner

Rivaux Abbey


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 185 × 262 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVII Z

Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Henry Dawe, ‘Rivaux Abbey, Yorkshire’, published Turner, 23 May 1812
The village of Rievaulx lies near Helmsley in North Yorkshire; its abbey was founded in 1131 and ruined following dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538. The trees and build-up of earth and rubble in the foreground of Turner’s Liber Studiorum design have since been cleared away, but otherwise the view has changed little. In Modern Painters, John Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’.1
Tuner’s composition is based directly on a rather perfunctory pencil sketch of 1801 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; formerly owned by Ruskin2), detached from the Smaller Fonthill sketchbook (some pages at Tate; Turner Bequest XLVIII); several other Liber compositions were derived from the same book: Drawing of the Clyde (indirectly), Coast of Yorkshire and Dumblain Abbey, Scotland (Tate D08122, D08129, D08157; Turner Bequest CXVI U, CXVII B, CXVIII C), and Solway Moss.3
The left-hand buttress and window (of three) of the south transept in the foreground of the original sketch have been omitted, arch mouldings and other details of the stonework have been slightly simplified and regularised, and the composition has been compressed so that the building has effectively ‘sunk’ by several feet relative to the banks in the foreground. The regular, schematic view of the arcades (an echo of Turner’s training in architectural draughtsmanship), recalls another Liber drawing of about the same date, Holy Island Cathedral (Tate D08115; Turner Bequest CXVI N). Stopford Brooke considered the Rievaulx design ‘poorly drawn. The great transept windows are certainly set forth with nobleness, but Turner’s hand was not thinking with his work when he etched the choir and its arches.’4
The composition is recorded, as ‘10[:] 5 Rivaulx Abbey’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12158; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)5 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.6 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Rivaulx Abbey’, in a list of ‘Architecture’ subjects (Tate D12168; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 29a).7
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Forrester 1996, p.113 note 1.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.107–8 no.52; 1906, pp.125–8 no.52; Finberg 1924, pp.205–8 no.52.
Brooke 1885, p.171.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.6–8, 97–106; 1906, pp.[9]–11, 114–24; Finberg 1924, pp.1–4, 185–204.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.391 no.785.
Ibid., p.436 no.1151, reproduced.
Forrester 1996, p.113 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Townsend 1996, vol.I, p.379.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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