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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Edinburgh, from Caulton-hill exhibited 1804

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Edinburgh, from Caulton-hill exhibited 1804
Turner Bequest LX H
Pencil, watercolour and gouache on two overlapping sheets of white wove paper, together 660 x 1000 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This large watercolour was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1804. Turner based it on a pencil drawing (on the London art market in 1975)1 probably originally from the Smaller Fonthill sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest XLVIII), dating from 1801 when he visited Scotland for the first time. From Calton Hill, to the east of Edinburgh’s city centre, the view takes in the Old Town, Castle and North Bridge while most of the New Town is hidden by the hill on the right. The narrative and figures, including milkmaids, washerwomen and Scottish dancers performing a reel are reminiscent of the studies of figures and costume in the Scotch Figures sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest LIX) also used in 1801. Turner’s watercolour was exhibited in the same year as David Wilkie painted Pitlessie Fair (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), his first essay in the Scottish vernacular that made him famous after he moved to London in 1805. Significant as the figures are in Turner’s watercolour, it is broadly classical in its symmetry and golden, Claudean atmosphere.
A View from the Top of Calton Hill, Edinburgh had been the subject of the first-ever panorama, painted by Robert Barker in 1788. The full-size version, 25 feet (8 metres) in diameter, was exhibited in London at 28 Haymarket, and then repainted in oil for the Upper Circle of the Panorama, Leicester Square, where it was shown from 8 January 1804 until 5 June 1807. Turner’s choice of subject for the Royal Academy in 1804 cannot have been a coincidence and his sophisticated treatment, more evocative than topographical, might have been calculated to draw attention to the limitations of Barker’s more literal methods; or to challenge that painter’s hubristic claim to have invented an ‘IMPROVEMENT ON PAINTING, which relieves that sublime Art from a restraint it has ever laboured under’.2
In their early catalogue of Turner’s work, John Burnet and Peter Cunningham described this watercolour as
In Turner’s early manner – probably during the latter years of the French war.– the outer rock of the Calton Hill being uncrowned by the goal. The water cart with spokeless wheels tells a tale of the non-existence of efficient water-companies at that early period of the century. The selection of the point of view is very fine; in the distance the elongated profile of the Castle is finely relieved by the disposition of masses of black rock in shadow, and a boldly pronounced foreground.3
John Ruskin greatly admired the watercolour, describing it as ‘very noble’4 and as ‘the great National Gallery North Bridge drawing’.5 He considered it to be in Turner’s ‘finest manner, unaffected by ... weakness of minute execution’.6
Christie’s sale, London, 4 November 1975, lot 13.
Edinburgh Evening Courant, 29 December 1787; see Scott B. Wilcox, ‘Unlimiting the Bounds of Painting’, in Ralph Hyde, Panoramania, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1988, p.21.
Burnet and Cunningham 1859, p.117.
Ruskin on Pictures; Cook 1902, p.227.
Ibid., p.348.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.366.
Technical notes:
This watercolour was made on two different papers, one, on which most of the landscape composition is painted, being pasted down on top of the other. In his discussion of the work, Peter Bower illustrates where the join occurs by a white line. Bower believes both papers were probably made in Double Elephant size (40 x 27 in, 1067 x 730 mm). He identifies the paper used for the bottom half of the picture as a lightweight white wove writing paper, without watermark but probably made by William Balston and Finch and Thomas Robert Hollingworth at Turkey Mill, Maidstone, Kent, while the top half is a heavy rough-surfaced white wove drawing paper, again without watermark, from an unknown source.
Bower notes that while it was not unusual for artists to use overlapping papers in order to correct or rework areas of their compositions, this example seems to be unique in the Turner Bequest in being made on two different papers. In his opinion the whole composition was first painted on the smooth writing paper now seen in the bottom half; but then, finding the sky unsatisfactory, Turner cut the work in half, laying the lower portion on a larger sheet of heavier drawing paper on which he painted a new sky.
Finberg described this work as ‘Considerably injured by exposure to light’. Bower ascribes the damage both to fading of the colours, especially in areas where indigo was used in the blues and greens, and to discolouration of the papers, probably because indigo had also been used as a whitening agent during their manufacture. The whole work now has a pronounced yellowish tinge.

David Blayney Brown
April 2011

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Edinburgh, from Caulton-hill exhibited 1804 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, April 2011, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, September 2014, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-edinburgh-from-caulton-hill-r1147469, accessed 19 May 2024.