Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Steeple of St Mary-the-Virgin, Oxford


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 110 × 88 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXI 43 a

Catalogue entry

During 1809, Turner was approached by the Oxford picture-dealer and framer James Wyatt for a view of the city, to be engraved.1 On 17 November, Turner wrote to Wyatt who had now probably ‘made up your mind as to the expense of a drawing or Picture’. The subject, ‘an excellent one’, was available in an earlier drawing (Tate D08219; Turner Bequest CXX F); ‘All Souls, St, Mary Church, All Saints, and looking up the High Street to Carfax Church’.2 However, subsequent correspondence shows Turner proposing to make a new drawing on the spot and giving thought to the scope of his view, specifically whether or not it should include the Queen’s College. In a letter posted on Christmas Day he wrote that he ‘will leave here some day this week for Oxford’ and asked Wyatt to prepare ‘a sheet of paper pasted down on a Board in readiness, about 2 Feet by 19’.3 This new drawing does not seem to have survived, although W.G. Rawlinson states that, while staying with Wyatt in Oxford, Turner made it from a post-chaise parked in the High just below the entrance to Queen’s.4 The sketches in this sketchbook of details of buildings or architecture must have been made during the same visit.
The spire of the University church of St Mary-the-Virgin, sketched here from further down the High, continued to be of ‘some concern’ to Turner when he had finished his view in oil (Loyd Collection; on loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).5 Wyatt evidently thought it looked too low in the picture and Turner wrote:
Many who look at that spire at the side opposite to it in the street think that it should look equal high at the angle, but which wholly changes its character. It becomes more dignified than piercingly lofty. However, if you can get me the height and base from the springing or setting off of the spire, or from the clock, it shall be altered to measure.6
Turner was able to make some adjustments to the picture when Wyatt returned it for the 1810 exhibition at Turner’s Gallery.

David Blayney Brown
May 2011

For a full discussion of Wyatt’s commission, which eventually comprised two pictures, see Colin Harrison, Turner’s Oxford, exhibition catalogue, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 2000, pp.76–85.
Turner to Wyatt, 17 November 1809, in John Gage ed., Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner with an Early Diary and a Memoir by George Jones, Oxford 1980, p.35.
Turner to Wyatt, in ibid., pp.38–9.
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., London 1908 and 1913, vol.I, p.37.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.73–4 no.102 (pl.109).
Turner to Wyatt, postmarked 6 April 1810, in Gage 1980, p.42.

Read full Catalogue entry

You might like