Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Destruction of the Bards by Edward I


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 679 × 1000 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXX Q

Display caption

This painting seems to be an abandoned companion to 'Caernarvon Castle'. Perhaps consciously, the two paintings perfectly illustrate the fashionable aesthetic concepts of 'beautiful' and 'sublime'. It is more faithful, however, to Gray's 'The Bard', particularly where the poem describes Edward I's army winding through Snowdonia (open in a nearby display case). Historically, Edward's final advance in 1283 preceded the building of Caernarvon Castle. It is this earlier moment which lies at the heart of Turner's landscape of breathtaking savageness, paralleling that of the advancing force. The archetypal image of the Bard issuing his curse from the mountains above is absent, although this is perhaps experimented with on another sheet (shown adjacently).

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

This large sheet, which has been known as ‘Scene in the Welsh Mountains with an Army on the March’ is probably an uncompleted watercolour intended for exhibition, illustrating Thomas Gray’s poem The Bard (published 1757) and intended as a pendant to the view of Caernarvon Castle exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 (Tate D04164; Turner Bequest LXX M).1 Gray’s poem imagines the last of the Bards denouncing Edward and his army as it advances into Wales, and concludes with his suicide.
Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!
Confusion on thy banners wait,
Though fann’d by Conquest’s crimson wing
They mock the air with idle state.
Helm, nor hauberk’s twisted mail,
Nor e’en thy virtues, tyrant, shall avail
To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
From Cambria’s curse form Cambria’s tears!’
Such were the sounds, that o’er the crested pride
Of the first Edward scatter’d wild dismay,
As down the steep of Snowdon’s shaggy side
He wound with toilsome march his long array.
On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o’er old Conway’s foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe,
With haggard eyes the poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream’d like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a master’s hand, and prophet’s fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.
Fond impious man, think’st thou, yon sanguine cloud,
Rais’d by thy breath, has quench’d the orb of day?
To-morrow he repairs the golden flood,
And warms the nations with redoubled ray.
Enough for me: with joy I see
The different doom our Fates assign.
Be thine Despair, and sceptred Care,
To triumph, and to die, are mine.
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain’s height,
Deep in the roaring tide he plung’d to endless night.
Turner had evidently read this text with care and sought to represent it as a historical drama set in a specific landscape – the landscape of Snowdonia that he had just explored for himself. As a history picture, executed in the still very unusual medium of watercolour, it was to portray a cast of characters, from the Bard himself, large-scale in the foreground, to the ‘crested pride’ of Edward’s army with its banners and hauberks on its ‘toilsome march’ glinting along the valley bottom, with Snowdon itself rearing above. The separate studies of the bard and other figures (D04165, D04185; Turner Bequest LXX N, h), were made with a view to their inclusion in this subject, on a foreground ‘stage’ formed by a rocky ledge overlooking the valley.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.329 no.263, pl.52.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.88–90 no.126, pl.131 (colour).
See Matteson 1980, pp.392–3.
Wilton p.345 no.399, pl.105 (colour).
Ibid., p.341 no.369, pl.104, as ?1804, while noting ‘it may have been done somewhat later, perhaps nearer 1810’.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.249 no.400, pl.403 (colour).
Ibid., p.248 no.399, pl.402 (colour).

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

Read full Catalogue entry

You might like

In the shop