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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Dunstanborough Castle circa 1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Dunstanborough Castle circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVI Q
Watercolour on white wove writing paper, 188 x 270 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching, aquatint and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘Duntanborough [sic] Castle the Picture in the possession of W,, Penn Esqr.’, published Charles Turner, 10 June 1808
Dunstanburgh Castle is on the coast of Northumberland, about seven miles north-east of Alnwick.1 Turner first visited the site on his 1797 tour of the north of England, and was still painting the long-ruined castle in the 1830s.2 Three other Liber Studiorum designs were based on drawings from the same tour: Holy Island Cathedral, The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey and Norham Castle on the Tweed (see Tate D08115, D08142, D08158; Turner Bequest CXVI N, CXVII O, CXVIII D).
Turner had initially produced two oil paintings: one was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798 (322) as Dunstanborough Castle, N.E. Coast of Northumberland. Sun-rise after a Squally Night (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne);3 the other, possibly a study for the exhibited picture, is smaller, with a stormier sea and dark rocks in the right foreground rising to eclipse the skyline of the castle (Dunedin Public Art Gallery).4 A watercolour version dating from about the same time is close to the Dunedin composition, though not so stormy (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne).5
Although the lettering of the Liber print refers explicitly to the exhibited (Melbourne) painting, then owned by W. Penn, there are significant differences. All the finished works show the castle from the south; the Lilburn Tower (with four turrets) to the left of the two round towers flanking the gateway in the Liber design, is shown some way to their right in the Melbourne painting, implying a viewpoint some way further east; conversely, in the smaller painting and watercolour, it appears further to the left, implying a shift in viewpoint to the west. For the Liber, Turner went back to his pencil drawing in the North of England sketchbook of 1797 (Tate D00952; Turner Bequest XXXIV 45); the details and juxtapositions of the elements on the skyline correspond very closely.
Gillian Forrester has suggested that he included the subject in the Liber as a ‘tribute to his former friend and fellow artist’, the late Thomas Girtin;6 he had toured the North of England ahead of Turner and produced his own views of Dunstanburgh.7 Commentators have dwelt on the poignancy of the castle’s ruined state. Ruskin saw it as an example of the folly of ‘human pride ... wan above the sea’;8 Rawlinson expanded on this: ‘The ambitious but ruined walls and towers of the castle stretch above [the lowly cottage] ..., its lighted window alone telling of life and human occupations, while the castle is left to the sheep and the hull to the sea-gulls.’9 More recently, Joll has described the castle’s gradual recession through successive versions,10 and Hill has noted Turner’s use of ‘the dawn light to reveal form, to contrast the solid geometry of the castle with the chaos of rocks and sea, and to create a sense of the inevitability of one returning to its natural state in the other.’11 The rocky foreground is similar to that depicted in another Liber Studiorum drawing of about the same date showing the coast near Whitby, about a hundred miles to the south on the same coast (Tate D08129; Turner Bequest CXVII B).
The composition is recorded, as ‘4[:] 3 Dunstanboro’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12156; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 23a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)12 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.13 It also appears later in the sketchbook, as ‘8 Dunstanboro’, in a list of ‘Marine’ subjects (Tate D12164; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 27a).14
The Liber Studiorum etching, aquatint and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Charles Turner, bears the publication date 20 February 1808 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Duntanborough [sic] Castle the Picture in the possession of W,, Penn Esqr.’ in part 3 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.12–16;15 see also Tate D08116, D08117, D08119, D08120; Turner Bequest CXVI O, P, R, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00937) and the published engraving (A00938). It is one of eleven published Liber subjects in Turner’s ‘Architectural’ category (see also Tate D08110, D08115, D08126, D08131, D08135, D08142, D08154, D08157, D08160; Turner Bequest CXVI I, N, Y, CXVII D, H, O, Z, CXVIII C, F). As noted above, the subject was originally on Turner’s ‘Marine’ list, but Forrester has suggested that he transferred it owing to a general shortage of potential architectural subjects.16
Turner returned to the composition in about 1828, with a watercolour for his Picturesque Views in England and Wales (Manchester Art Gallery),17 engraved in 1830. The background closely follows the Liber design, with the same disposition of dawn light and shadow, though the sea is now a little calmer and the foreground is a wide beach populated by figures salvaging a wreck. A final oil painting, Wreckers – Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834 (199) (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, B1978.43.15)18 is the stormiest of all, but here the castle is based on the early studies from further to the east (Tate D00890, D01113; Turner Bequest XXXIII S, XXXVI S).
In 1973, the painter and printmaker David Gentleman made a lithograph of Dunstanburgh from the same viewpoint as in the Liber composition (see Tate’s impression, P06240).
Turner favoured the spelling ‘Dunstanborough’, but the ‘-burgh’ form is now generally used.
Joll 1988, pp.3–7; Hill 1997, pp.72–7.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.4–5 no.6, pl.4 (colour).
Ibid., pp.23–4 no.32, pl.28 (colour).
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.331 no.284.
Forrester 1996, p.61.
Thomas Girtin and David Loshak, The Art of Thomas Girtin, London 1954, pp.143 no.72, 156 nos.162, 159 no.183.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Rawlinson 1878, p.35.
Joll 1988, p.7.
Hill 1997, p.73; see also Brooke 1885, p.50.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.30–9; 1906, pp.37–48; Finberg 1924, pp.45–64.
Forrester 1996, p.90.
Wilton 1979, p.395 no.814, reproduced.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.206–7 no.357, pl.360 (colour).
Technical Notes:
There is a soft, fairly uniform wash over the sky, with lights scratched in, including the panes of the cottage window. The sheep on the slope below the castle were each made from two blobs of watercolour and a scratch. Some glossy washes give a turbid medium effect where applied over earlier dark washes to the right of the cottage. The overall cool brown tonality results from the use of a single, umber pigment.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘CXVI Q | Pl 14’ top left, ‘3’ [circled], ‘3’, and ‘Dunstanburgh Castle <in> Picture in the Possession of W Penn Esqr’ centre, and ‘26’ bottom centre
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVI – Q’ bottom left

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Dunstanborough Castle c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, 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/joseph-mallord-william-turner-dunstanborough-castle-r1131720, accessed 21 June 2024.