Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Quiet Ruin, Cattle in Water; A Sketch, Evening

?exhibited 1809

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on wood
Support: 612 × 765 mm
frame: 930 × 1085 × 125 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner’s early career coincided with the long wars between Britain and France, particularly the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). Travel to the rest of Europe was almost impossible. Artists turned their attention to the British landscape and architectural heritage. Paintings such as this, of quiet rural British scenes, provided a focus for patriotic feeling.
Like other artists, Turner drew on the newly developed idea of the ‘picturesque’. This emphasised the pleasure of roughness and variety in nature or old buildings. Pictures of ruins were popular.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

83. [N00487] The Quiet Ruin, Cattle in Water; a Sketch, Evening Exh. 1809?

Mahogany, 24 1/8 × 30 1/8 (61 × 76·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. ?Turner's gallery 1809 (2, as ‘Sketch of Cows, &c.’); Tate Gallery 1931 (52); on loan to the Ulster Museum 1964–9.

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, p. 121); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 294; 1877, p. 430; Armstrong 1902, p. 219; MacColl 1920, p. 8; Gage 1965, p. 79 n.35.

For an alternative candidate for the picture exhibited in 1809 see No. 84 [N01857]. Ruskin dates the painting 1811 with a query; Thornbury 1811 tout court. However it seems likely that this was the work listed by Turner in about 1810 in his ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII-36; for the dating see Nos. 53 [T03869] and 56 [N00474]); the relatively low price set for it of £200 again suggests this picture rather than the larger No. 84 [N01857]. In the ‘Finance’ sketchbook the work is entitled ‘Cows’; if it was the work exhibited by Turner in 1809 it was then entitled ‘Sketch of Cows, &c.’; Ruskin lists the work as ‘Cattle in Water’ but states in a footnote that the full title is that given at the head of this entry.

Ruskin imagined ‘this to be one of the very few instances in which Turner made a study in oil. The subject was completed afterwards in a careful, though somewhat coarse drawing, which defines the Norman window in the ruined wall, and is one of many expressions of Turner's feeling of the contrast between the pure rustic life of our own day, and the pride and terror of the past.’ If, however, the watercolour he refers to is that formerly known as St. Agatha's Abbey, Easby, Yorkshire but more correctly known as The Abbey Pool in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (see Hartley 1984, pp. 34–5 no. 23, repr.), the oil is almost certainly the later of the two versions of the composition. The watercolour is signed ‘W.Turner’, the form only used by Turner up to about 1800 (there are traces of a date, rubbed and trimmed, which has been identified as ‘1801’). It shows a group of cows, fairly close to that in the oil, against the ruined abbey, which occupies most of the background, though there is a bank of earth on the left. In the oil all of the background is shown as earth and rocks with the exception of an architectural feature similar to that in the watercolour on the skyline on the right. The main forms are the same as in the watercolour, however, and pentimenti suggest that the background of the oil could originally have been much more architectural. In addition the grouping of the cows has been modified in the oil, two sheep added on the right, and the foreground detail inserted.

Two cracks run into the panel, one about 9 in. long from the left-hand edge, just below the horizon, the other from the right, about 4 in. long.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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