Joseph Mallord William Turner

River Wye (‘Chepstow Castle’)


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 183 × 262 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVII X

Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner and W. Annis, ‘River Wye’, published Turner, 23 May 1812
Chepstow Castle, Monmouthshire, dates from the late eleventh century. Turner seems to have visited the site in 1792, producing a watercolour of the castle (Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, 1.74)1 for a 1794 engraving.2 Turner’s viewpoint for the Liber Studiorum is from the north-west – though actually from a bend of the east (English) bank of the Wye – with the castle silhouetted against the bright sky to the south. As Gillian Forrester has noted, William Gilpin had written of the site in Picturesque terms, and Turner probably knew the print Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire by Paul Sandby, from his 1775 Views in Aquatinta from Drawings taken on the Spot in South-Wales; Sandby’s view is taken from the west bank, but is similar in its general composition.3
In Modern Painters, Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’, with its ‘arrowy light through traceried windows’.4 Stopford Brooke read it as an evening scene:
The sun has dropped down on its setting; the glory of the castle is gone; but they have had their day, and both, in passing away, preserve a beauty that is filled with peace. All things have ceased to work. ... It is the poet’s “all golden afternoon.”5 ... [R]egret in the quiet evening for the ruin of Chepstow’s work and splendour, sympathy with its past – that is the sentiment in Turner’s soul. ... The distant hills slumber in the twilight, and the arrangement of the cattle and trees in the foreground, repeating the broken lines of the castle, increases the feeling of repose.6
On his 1798 tour of Wales, Turner had made two pencil studies of the castle from this angle in the Dynevor Castle sketchbook. The skyline in the present design closely follows one of them (Tate D01491, D01492; Turner Bequest XL 17a–18), and he probably referred to the other (D01624, D01626; XL 93–94) for details of the landscape. The other Liber composition depicting Chepstow, The Junction of the Severn and the Wye (see Tate D08132; Turner Bequest CXVII E), shows the building from a similar angle, but half hidden in the landscape seen from higher ground about a mile to the north. Either of the Chepstow designs may be the one mentioned in a letter from Turner to F.C. Lewis, at the time Lewis was involved briefly with the Liber, engraving his one plate, Bridge and Goats, in reverse (see under Tate D08146; Turner Bequest CXVII R). Turner wrote of a further drawing he had sent: ‘The new one is a view of Chepstow therefore must not be Reversed but made like the drawing.’7
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.311 no.88, reproduced.
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908, pp.2–3 no.2.
Forrester 1996, p.110; Sandby’s print is no.48iii, reproduced.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, LXXXIX.
Brooke 1885, pp.[161], 162, 163.
Rawlinson 1878, p.183, letter no.2; John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner with an Early Diary and a Memoir by George Jones, Oxford 1980, p.33, letter no.19, as ?early 1807; see also Forrester 1996, pp.50, 51 note 5 (favouring The Junction of the Severn and the Wye).
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.161 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.6–8, 97–106; 1906, pp.[9]–11, 114–24; Finberg 1924, pp.1–4, 185–204.
Bruce Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer 1860 – 1942, Oxford 1971, p.83.
Ibid., p.144 no.349, pl.172.
Ibid., p.145 no.366; Robin Ironside, Wilson Steer, Oxford and London 1943, pl.45.
Laughton 1971, p.144 no.352.
D.S. MacColl, Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, London 1945, p.80; cited and discussed in Laughton 1971, p.89.
Laughton 1971, p.90.
Jane Munro, Philip Wilson Steer 1860–1942: Paintings and Watercolours, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Arts Council, London 1986, p.55.
Forrester 1996, p.110 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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