Here Turner depicts the market town of Totnes at the head of the estuary of the River Dart in Devon. A local hoy laden with cargo drifts towards a mooring site on the outskirts of the town on the left, while seabirds and waders congregate at a bank on the right. The water is rendered with a mirror-like sheen, clusters of rich green foliage forming vivid and shimmering reflections within it. Turner has used a multiplicity of colours applied in layered stipples and hatches, blended and diffused seamlessly, to produce the lustrous surface of the water. The estuary is represented as an Arcadian vision, a place of harmony and abundance.
Beyond the water the faint, minutely rendered outline of the tower of St Mary’s Church is visible, framed by gently sloping hills. Atop the hill to the left is the curtain wall and shell keep of Totnes Castle, built in the fourteen and fifteen hundreds.1 The castle fell into ruin in the following century. The town is painted with muted, pale tones to suggest recession but this also serves to heighten the warmth and vibrancy of the pigments used in the foreground and middle distance.
Of this view, Turner’s biographer William Monkhouse writes, ‘nothing can be more purely English...[it is a]...‘picture of placid beauty in which there is no straining effect, no mannerism’. The level of Turner’s mimesis is such that Monkhouse writes: ‘there is nothing to remind you of the artist’ in the drawing; it is only until the viewer finds the ‘touches of red in the fore of the river...that you discern him at last, and find that you are looking not at nature but “a Turner”’.2
The River Dart also features in other of Turner’s Rivers of England watercolours: Dartmouth, on the River Dart and Dartmouth Castle, on the River Dart (Tate D18136, D18137; Turner Bequest CCVIII C, D). For other, earlier sketches of Totnes see Turner’s 1811 sketchbooks: Devonshire Coast, No.1 (Tate D08541, D08542, D08625; Turner Bequest CXXIII 91, 91a, 136) and Corfe to Dartmouth (Tate D08854, D08855; Turner Bequest CXXIV39, 40).