J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Dryburgh Abbey c.1832

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Dryburgh Abbey circa 1832
Watercolour on paper, 79 x 149 mm
Bequeathed by Beresford Rimington Heaton 1940
Robert Cadell 1832; Beresford Rimington Heaton, by whom bequeathed to the Tate Gallery 1940
This small, almost postcard-sized watercolour was painted to be engraved as the frontispiece illustration to the Sir Tristrem volume (5) of Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works; Turner painted it the same size as the engraving, making it easier for William Miller to copy it on the steel plate (1834, Tate T04950).1
The subject shows Dryburgh Abbey, which lies about halfway between Selkirk and Kelso in the Scottish Borders, as seen from near the village of St Boswells across the River Tweed to the south. In the distance at the left are the twin peaks of the Eildon Hills, and just to the upper right of centre is a white shape representing the statue of William Wallace that stands on a hill near Bemerside. The statue was commissioned by the eleventh Earl of Buchan. The composition, with the wide loop of the river, has been compared to several other works by Turner including The Crook of Lune, Looking towards Hornby Castle circa 1816–18 (watercolour, Courtauld Institute Gallery, London),2 and Château Gaillard from the East circa 1833 (Tate D24678; Turner Bequest CCLIX 133).3
Turner has used the common trope of including figures in the foreground who survey the scene ahead of them (and us). One of the figures may be a child, inspired perhaps by Alick and Jamey Tod (or Todd), the sons of a local acquaintance of Robert Cadell’s who accompanied Turner and Cadell to the abbey.4 More figures populate the scene, with three on the path at the left and further figures standing on the opposite bank and wading in the water.
The watercolour was based on sketches in the Abbotsford sketchbook, made by Turner during his visit to the abbey in the company of Robert Cadell on 8 August 1831. Turner stayed at Abbotsford with Sir Walter Scott between 4–9 August, and was taken to various local sites by Cadell and sometimes by Scott to see and sketch subjects to be illustrated for a new edition of Scott’s Poetical Works.5
The main sketch is Tate D25941–D25942 (Turner Bequest CCLXVII 8a–9). This double-page spread provides the composition of the watercolour with very little manipulation other than the slight exaggeration of the height of the Eildon Hills. Most of the details (other than the figures) are also there, though drawn with great economy. It has also been suggested by one writer that further sketches also contributed towards the design (Tate D2049–D26051; Turner Bequest CCLXVII 70a–72),6 but these in fact show a different view of the abbey. A separate, more detailed sketch of the abbey formed the basis of the architectural detail in the watercolour (Tate D26051; Turner Bequest CCLXVII 71a).
The significance of Dryburgh Abbey to the Sir Tristrem volume of the Poetical Works lies not in the setting of the poem, but in the homeland of the poet. Thomas the Rhymer, whom Scott identified as the author of the tale, was born in Earlston near Dryburgh, and Scott, who lived nearby, had even stronger links to the abbey as his family had the right of burial there. Scott himself was buried there in September 1832. The poet was particularly keen to stress his connection through the selection of the view for the frontispiece illustration, suggesting the family Mausoleum as a possible subject. Cadell, however, resisted the morbid association: ‘I protest against the Mausoleum – Dryburgh Abbey we may have – but we will have no admission of the Mortality of the Author of the Lay!!’.7 Cadell’s phrase suggests that he was thinking about the sensibility of the reader of the Poetical Works as well as the author when he wrote these words to Scott.
Blue and green predominate in this watercolour. Turner seems to have used watercolour exclusively, with no obvious pencil under-drawing or additions in body colour. The painting is precise rather than broad, with areas of colour built up with small brushstrokes. Details are created with fine, short lines, loops or hatches in dark blue, green or orange-brown watercolour applied with an extremely fine brush or even a pen. Turner used the unpainted paper for white, leaving the paper blank for the clouds and the main abbey building, or scratching through the paint as in the ruin to the right of the abbey. He also lifted paint off to articulate the foliage at the lower centre of the page. He must have mixed gum arabic with the paint to stop it from soaking too deeply into the paper too quickly, allowing him to lift it off with a dry brush. Turner may have used the handle of his brush to mark the path in the wet paint at the left foreground.
Dryburgh Abbey was first exhibited, along with the other eleven watercolours that had so far been painted for Scott’s Poetical Works, at the Pall Mall gallery of Moon, Boys & Graves for a week beginning on 14 March 1832. The critic of the Athenaeum described them as ‘unequalled for beauty, and finish with more care then usually distinguishes the facile pencil of the artist’.8 Turner must therefore have painted it in late 1831 or early 1832. Having been engraved, the watercolour then went into the possession of Robert Cadell.
There is a small area of discolouration, perhaps foxing, at the top left of the painting, at the bottom of the Eildon Hills. Apart from that the watercolour is in good condition.
Rawlinson 1908 and 1913, II, p.280 no.501.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.366 no.575. This comparison was first made in Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.100.
This comparison was made by Anne Lyles 1992, p.45.
Robert Cadell, ‘Abbotsford Diary’, MS Acc.5188, Box 1, National Library of Scotland, quoted in Finley 1972, p.382.
See Finley 1972 and Finley 1980.
Anne Lyles, Turner: The Fifth Decade: Watercolours 1830–1840, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, p.44.
Robert Cadell to Sir Walter Scott, 1 August 1831, MS 3919 folios 2v, in Adele M. Holcomb, ‘Turner and Scott’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.34, 1971, p.392.
Alexander J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Second Edition, Revised, with a Supplement, by Hilda F. Finberg, revised ed., Oxford 1961, p.334.

Thomas Ardill
August 2010

How to cite

Thomas Ardill, ‘Dryburgh Abbey c.1832’, catalogue entry, August 2010, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/dryburgh-abbey-r1136021, accessed 30 May 2024.