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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Merton College, Oxford c.1835-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Merton College, Oxford c.1835–8
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 349
Watercolour on white wove paper, 294 x 432 mm
Watermark ‘J Whatman | Turkey Mill | 1825’
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Merton College, founded in the thirteenth century and the oldest of Oxford University’s colleges,1 is shown on the south side of Merton Street, looking west-south-west from near the junction with Logic Lane towards the tower and north transept of the college chapel in the middle distance and Corpus Christi College beyond. The low gabled buildings on the opposite side of the narrow lane are also recognisable today. The composition is based on a relatively slight pencil drawing, hemmed in by a multitude of auxiliary details of windows, mouldings and tracery, in the Oxford sketchbook (Tate D27929; Turner Bequest CCLXXXV 23a), likely to have been in use during a visit on other business in July 1834;2 for other later compositions in and around the city, see the ‘Oxford Subjects’ subsection of ‘England and Wales Colour Studies c.1825–39’ in the present catalogue.
Much has been written concerning Turner’s Oxford subject matter in general, which occupied him sporadically from the late 1780s to the end of the 1830s. The most extensive accounts are Patrick Youngblood’s3 and Colin Harrison’s,4 while Andrew Kennedy has provided a concise summary.5 Merton’s chapel tower is seen from other directions in drawings of as early as 1792–3 (Tate D00116, D00129; Turner Bequest VIII B, XI D), while the watercolour Merton College from the Meadows of about 1801 (private collection)6 shows the buildings in the bucolic landscape setting which still survives to their south.
The present composition is accepted as having been intended to be included in Turner’s major series of Picturesque Views in England and Wales7 (see the Introduction to this section); Eric Shanes has noted that its ‘subject, symbolism, size and handling’ justify this assumption.8 Although as complete and elaborate as any of the watercolours produced for the print project, it was not engraved and may have been too late to be included as the scheme tailed off in 1838; it is the only finished work in England and Wales mode to have remained in Turner’s studio and thus the Turner Bequest. It may have been a notional pendant to the watercolour Christ Church College, Oxford (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)9 of about 1832, which had been engraved in 1834 (Tate impression: T06108) and shows the college receding towards the left, with another varied cast of builders, dogs and dons in the foreground.10
The height and slenderness of the twin pinnacles over the 1418 gatehouse11 near the centre of this watercolour have been exaggerated, there are now three gabled second-storey windows on their near side, rather than the two Turner shows by accident or design here and also in his sketch, and the whole frontage appears somewhat truncated. The most obvious anomaly is Turner’s depiction of a carved and pinnacled balcony and canopy around the window over the small door on the left. In his pencil sketch the window is represented as a simple pointed arch with tracery, but a watercolour by local artist William Matthison (1853–1926) reproduced as a postcard in about 190912 shows a similar view with the elaborate window surround as Turner shows it here, suggesting it was installed shortly after Turner’s 1834 visit and implying that he either revisited the site or had access to a separate source for this detail. The doorway has since been blocked and there is now a relatively plain arched window at that point extending over the two storeys. Shanes has reported that building work is known to have been undertaken on the college’s street façade between 1836 and 1838,13 but:
whether Turner witnessed this or not he has introduced it here, as he did in Christ Church, to symbolize the constructive process of education. He again relates the dons to disputing dogs, linking them by a diagonal timber beam, and indicates the refreshment of the mind by the milkmaid on the right. Note the builder who is glancing at her, the phallic emphasis of the gateway above him and the formal repetition of the gateway’s turrets in the narrow shapes of the dons.14
Anne Lyles has observed that the ‘inclusion of two dogs in playful juxtaposition is a recurring Turnerian motif’,15 comparing those here to a pair in the French subject Troyes of about 1832 (Tate D24691; CCLIX 126).16 Lindsay Stainton has been cautious of an overly detailed interpretation of the scene, considering it more of ‘a commentary on the city, its inhabitants and doings. Such an associative explanation seems more convincing than an allegorical one’.17 The warm atmosphere is that of a summer evening, with a new moon high up near the centre and the glow intensified by the deep shadow being cast over the wall at the left by an unseen gable and chimneys. Shanes has notes this ‘new moon and sunset’ combination as ‘complementing the decay that is being remedied so dynamically by a group of builders’,18 although Cecilia Powell was unconvinced of such a reading as adopted in the interpretative material for Andy Loukes and Sarah Taft’s 1998 Tate Gallery Moonlight and Firelight display, and ‘would prefer to read [the new moon] as reinforcing the transitory light effects elsewhere in the scene.’19
In discussing Christ Church and the present work in relation to England and Wales, Patrick Youngblood has noted that they shortly pre-date Turner’s late ‘expressionistic canvases’, yet ‘demonstrate a relatively straightforward topographical style that was precisely suited not only to the tone of the series but also to the needs of the engraver. Though stylistically looser and formally more imaginative than the earlier Oxford views, these designs ... signal a consciously conservative choice on Turner’s part to match style to purpose.’20
Colin Harrison has described how the ‘street lends itself to the distortion in perspective, now wholly incorporated in Turner’s imaginary topography.’21 Oddly, when it formed part of the Fourth Loan Collection selected from the Turner Bequest from 1891 onwards, the work was officially listed as ‘Exeter College, Oxford, with Figures’, perhaps having been compared with the 1823 engraving Exeter, Jesus, and Lincoln College, with All Saints’ Church, from the Turl (Tate impression: T05924) or the original, larger 1806 version View of Exeter College, All Saints Church &c. from the Turl for the Oxford Almanack, taken from Turner’s watercolour of 1802–4 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).22 The combination of buildings in a similar style receding down a narrow street with workmen in the foreground bears cursory comparison, but Exeter’s more regular three-storey façade can hardly be mistaken for Merton’s. Perhaps Turner, consciously or not, adopted the general composition and theme of the earlier design here, thinking back to his extensive Oxford work of the 1800s.23
That the generally scrupulous and accurate Finberg should have retained the Exeter College identification in his 1909 Inventory24 suggests that he had not had access to the work while it was on extended tour. William White had accurately described the subject as ‘Merton College and Chapel, Oxford’ in his independent catalogue of 1896, but rather waywardly dated it to 1801, considering it as an unexecuted design for another early Oxford Almanack subject, associating it with the 1802 engraving Inside View of the East End of Merton College Chapel from Turner’s 1801 watercolour25 (also Ashmolean Museum),26 and wrongly albeit poetically describing the ‘pale light of early morning – the crescent moon is still seen clearly in the zenith of delicate ultramarine blue’.27
See Shanes 1990, p.259, Warrell 1993, p.200, and Warrell 1994, p.202.
See Shanes 1979, p.156, Stainton 1982, p.31, Warrell and Perkins 1988, p.21, Shanes 1990, p.259, Lyles 1992, p.54, Warrell 1993, pp.304–5, Warrell 1994, p.202, Shanes 1997, p.86, Harrison 2000, p.105, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
Youngblood 1984, pp.3–21.
Harrison 2000.
Andrew Kennedy, ‘Oxford’ in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds.), The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, pp.208–9.
Wilton 1979, p.346 no.408, reproduced.
Ibid., p.391, noting it without further comment among those unengraved designs ‘which appear to have been intended for the work’; see also Stainton 1982, p.31, Wilton 1987, p.101, Warrell and Perkins 1988, p.18, Lyles 1992, p.54, Warrell 1993, p.304, Warrell 1994, p.202, Shanes 1997, p.86, Harrison 2000, p.91, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
Shanes 1979, p.48; see also Shanes 1990, p.259.
Wilton 1979, p.400 no.853.
See Stainton 1982, p.31, Lyles 1992, p.54, Harrison 2000, p.91, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
See Shanes 1990, p.259, and Harrison 2000, p.91.
‘Views of Merton College’, The Victorian Web, reproduced, accessed 21 June 2016, http://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/oxford/misc/10.html.
See also Lyles 1992, p.54, Warrell 1993, p.305, Warrell 1994, p.202, Harrison 2000, p.91, and Warrell 2007, p.127.
Shanes 1979, p.48; see also Shanes 1990, p.259, with slight variations.
Lyles 1992, p.55.
Wilton 1979, p.417 no.990, reproduced.
Stainton 1982, p.31.
Shanes 1990, p.259.
Powell 1998, p.12.
Youngblood 1984, pp.18–19.
Harrison 2000, p.91.
Wilton 1979, p.333 no p.300, reproduced.
See Wilton 1979, pp.333–3 nos.295–306.
Finberg 1909, II, p.841.
White 1896, p.17 no.16.
Wilton 1979, p.333 no.297, reproduced.
White 1896, p.19.
Technical notes:
The sheet is intensively worked in places. The crescent moon is scratched out, and there are indented ruled lines within the elaborate window surround on the left, with further scratching out where window panes catch the light, and rubbing back to the white surface where smoke issues from the chimneys. A fine brush was used to outline the details of the distant buildings in red and grey, possibly using inks rather than watercolour.1
See Harrison 2000, p.105.

Matthew Imms
June 2016

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Merton College, Oxford c.1835–8 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, June 2016, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, February 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-merton-college-oxford-r1184477, accessed 15 April 2024.