Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for the Composition of ‘Dolbadern Castle, North Wales’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Ink and graphite on paper
Support: 210 × 135 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXIX 103

Catalogue entry

Turner submitted his painting Dolbadern Castle, North Wales to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1800, and presented it as his Diploma work on his election as full Academician in that year (Royal Academy of Arts, London).1 There are five other studies in coloured chalks for the composition in this book, on the rectos of folios 103, 107, 108, 111 and 112 (D04119, D04124, D04125, D04128, D04129; Turner Bequest LXIX 104, 108, 109, 112, 113). An offset of the present drawing is on the verso of D04125, indicating that they were once bound consecutively.
The sequence is unusual in being blocked out in broadly indicated areas of coloured chalk, described by Gerald Wilkinson as ‘a new world of colour and light’.2 This is certainly a new approach for Turner, but the organisation of these studies suggests that he conceived his subject from the start primarily in terms of tone: it was to be a bold exercise in dramatic chiaroscuro, imitating the most rugged compositions of Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), and including a group of figures embodying the theme of incarceration and heroic resistance in an episode from early Welsh history. A study of bound and guarded figures that may relate to this theme is on folio 67 recto (D04077). The parallel between bleak landscape and stern human events was brought out in the lines of verse that Turner appended to his catalogue entry for the picture when it was exhibited in 1800:
How awful is the silence of the waste,
Where nature lifts her mountains to the sky.
Majestic solitude, behold the tower
Where hopeless OWEN, long imprison’d, pin’d,
And wrong his hands for liberty, in vain.
These lines are generally considered to be Turner’s own, and are therefore his earliest published composition. They refer to Owain Goch, imprisoned at Dolbadarn from 1254 to 1277, when he was released under the terms of the Treaty of Conway, ironically the treaty that ended Wales’s independence after Edward I’s campaign to suppress the country, a subject that greatly interested Turner and which he planned to illustrate vividly in a work begun at this time; see the large unfinished watercolour, Tate D04168 (Turner Bequest LXX Q). Aside from the landscape of Snowdonia itself, he appears to have stimulated initially by Thomas Gray’s famous Ode The Bard (1757). A small oil study on panel for the Dolbadarn composition, including a group of captive and soldiers somewhat different from that in the finished work, belonged to Turner’s later patron and friend Munro of Novar, and was in his sale 1867. It was recorded as untraced by Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll,3 but is now in the collection of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.9–10 no.12, pl.7 (colour).
Gerald Wilkinson, Turner’s Early Sketchbooks: Drawings in England, Wales and Scotland from 1789 to 1802, London 1972, p.94.
Ibid., p.10.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

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