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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Rivaux Abbey c.1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Rivaux Abbey circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVII Z
Watercolour on white wove writing paper, 185 x 262 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom left
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Henry Dawe, ‘Rivaux Abbey, Yorkshire’, published Turner, 23 May 1812
The village of Rievaulx lies near Helmsley in North Yorkshire; its abbey was founded in 1131 and ruined following dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538. The trees and build-up of earth and rubble in the foreground of Turner’s Liber Studiorum design have since been cleared away, but otherwise the view has changed little. In Modern Painters, John Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’.1
Tuner’s composition is based directly on a rather perfunctory pencil sketch of 1801 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; formerly owned by Ruskin2), detached from the Smaller Fonthill sketchbook (some pages at Tate; Turner Bequest XLVIII); several other Liber compositions were derived from the same book: Drawing of the Clyde (indirectly), Coast of Yorkshire and Dumblain Abbey, Scotland (Tate D08122, D08129, D08157; Turner Bequest CXVI U, CXVII B, CXVIII C), and Solway Moss.3
The left-hand buttress and window (of three) of the south transept in the foreground of the original sketch have been omitted, arch mouldings and other details of the stonework have been slightly simplified and regularised, and the composition has been compressed so that the building has effectively ‘sunk’ by several feet relative to the banks in the foreground. The regular, schematic view of the arcades (an echo of Turner’s training in architectural draughtsmanship), recalls another Liber drawing of about the same date, Holy Island Cathedral (Tate D08115; Turner Bequest CXVI N). Stopford Brooke considered the Rievaulx design ‘poorly drawn. The great transept windows are certainly set forth with nobleness, but Turner’s hand was not thinking with his work when he etched the choir and its arches.’4
The composition is recorded, as ‘10[:] 5 Rivaulx Abbey’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12158; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)5 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.6 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Rivaulx Abbey’, in a list of ‘Architecture’ subjects (Tate D12168; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 29a).7
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Henry Dawe, bears the publication date 23 May 1812 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Rivaux [sic] Abbey, Yorkshire’ in part 10, together with the free Frontispiece (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.47–51 and 1;8 see also Tate D08150–D08153; Turner Bequest CXVII W, X, Y, Vaughan Bequest CXVII V). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A01012) and the published engraving (A01013 and A01014). It is one of eleven published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Architectural’ category (see also Tate D08110, D08115, D08118, D08126, D08131, D08135, D08142, D08157, D08160; Turner Bequest CXVI I, N, Q, Y, CXVII D, H, O, CXVIII C, F).
Turner made further drawings of Rievaulx in the 1801 Dunbar sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest LIV), from which he went on much later to produce two watercolours showing the abbey in the distance: one, of about 1826, engraved for his Picturesque Views in England and Wales (York Art Gallery),9 and another of about ten years later, perhaps originally intended as an illustration to Sir Walter Scott (Tate N05615).10
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Forrester 1996, p.113 note 1.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.107–8 no.52; 1906, pp.125–8 no.52; Finberg 1924, pp.205–8 no.52.
Brooke 1885, p.171.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.6–8, 97–106; 1906, pp.[9]–11, 114–24; Finberg 1924, pp.1–4, 185–204.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.391 no.785.
Ibid., p.436 no.1151, reproduced.
Technical notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘J Whatman | 1801’.1 The washes were followed by brushwork applied wet in curved lines. The lights are a combination of washing- and scratching-out, the latter particularly evident in the wind-tossed foliage towards the upper right. A mezzotint rocker tool was dragged through the watercolour wash to give close, parallel scratched texture to the stone of the transept.2 Washes for the vaulting were applied to wet paper, with details added after the paper had dried; some details of the receding windows are so regular that they could have been ruled. The overall cool brown colour comprises a single umber pigment.3
Forrester 1996, p.113 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Townsend 1996, vol.I, p.379.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscription.
Inscribed by the artist in ink ‘[?Paris]’ centre right, descending vertically
There are some spatterings, possibly of watercolour wash. The right-hand two-thirds of the sheet are darkened, but this does not affect the composition on the recto.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Rivaux Abbey 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-rivaux-abbey-r1131755, accessed 19 June 2024.