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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner River Wye ('Chepstow Castle') c.1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
River Wye (‘Chepstow Castle’) circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVII X
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 183 x 262 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and W. Annis, ‘River Wye’, published Turner, 23 May 1812
Chepstow Castle, Monmouthshire, dates from the late eleventh century. Turner seems to have visited the site in 1792, producing a watercolour of the castle (Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London, 1.74)1 for a 1794 engraving.2 Turner’s viewpoint for the Liber Studiorum is from the north-west – though actually from a bend of the east (English) bank of the Wye – with the castle silhouetted against the bright sky to the south. As Gillian Forrester has noted, William Gilpin had written of the site in Picturesque terms, and Turner probably knew the print Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire by Paul Sandby, from his 1775 Views in Aquatinta from Drawings taken on the Spot in South-Wales; Sandby’s view is taken from the west bank, but is similar in its general composition.3
In Modern Painters, Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’, with its ‘arrowy light through traceried windows’.4 Stopford Brooke read it as an evening scene:
The sun has dropped down on its setting; the glory of the castle is gone; but they have had their day, and both, in passing away, preserve a beauty that is filled with peace. All things have ceased to work. ... It is the poet’s “all golden afternoon.”5 ... [R]egret in the quiet evening for the ruin of Chepstow’s work and splendour, sympathy with its past – that is the sentiment in Turner’s soul. ... The distant hills slumber in the twilight, and the arrangement of the cattle and trees in the foreground, repeating the broken lines of the castle, increases the feeling of repose.6
On his 1798 tour of Wales, Turner had made two pencil studies of the castle from this angle in the Dynevor Castle sketchbook. The skyline in the present design closely follows one of them (Tate D01491, D01492; Turner Bequest XL 17a–18), and he probably referred to the other (D01624, D01626; XL 93–94) for details of the landscape. The other Liber composition depicting Chepstow, The Junction of the Severn and the Wye (see Tate D08132; Turner Bequest CXVII E), shows the building from a similar angle, but half hidden in the landscape seen from higher ground about a mile to the north. Either of the Chepstow designs may be the one mentioned in a letter from Turner to F.C. Lewis, at the time Lewis was involved briefly with the Liber, engraving his one plate, Bridge and Goats, in reverse (see under Tate D08146; Turner Bequest CXVII R). Turner wrote of a further drawing he had sent: ‘The new one is a view of Chepstow therefore must not be Reversed but made like the drawing.’7
The composition is recorded, as ‘10[:] 2 Chepstow River Wye’, 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)8 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.9 It also appears later in the sketchbook, ‘2 Chepstow River Wye’, in a list of published and unpublished ‘EP’ subjects (Tate D12162; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 26a).10
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by William Annis, bears the publication date 23 May 1812 and was issued to subscribers as ‘River Wye’ in part 10, together with the free Frontispiece (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.47–51 and 1;11 see also Tate D08150, D08151, D08153, D08154; Turner Bequest CXVII W, Y, Z, Vaughan Bequest CXVII V). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching, provisionally lettered ‘Chepstow Castle’ (Tate A01006) and the published engraving (A01007). It is one of eleven published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘EP’ category, likely to indicate ‘Elevated Pastoral’ (see general Liber introduction, and drawings Tate D08103, D08112, D08117, D08122, D08128, D08132, D08137, D08141, D08146, D08147, D08155, D08159, D08163, D08168; Turner Bequest CXVI B, K, P, U, CXVII A, E, J, N, R, S, CXVIII A, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII E, I, N).
After an early Impressionist phase, the British painter Philip Wilson Steer (1860–1942) became interested around 1895 in the landscapes of earlier artists including Watteau, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner;12 he worked at various Turnerian sites including both the Yorkshire and Surrey Richmonds, and visited Chepstow in 1905. He produced a loose watercolour study (Tate N03019), but his oil paintings appear to be directly inspired by Turner’s Liber composition: Chepstow Castle (Tate N02473)13 shows the castle and river from the same angle, with the ruin contre-jour against a sunny sky with broken, Constable-like clouds; the design is virtually repeated in another version (collection of the late HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother);14 a third, smaller painting is at Leeds (City Art Gallery).15 Steer’s biographers have discussed his debt to Turner, and which reproductions of Liber prints he might have carried on his tours,16 though his ‘phenomenal’ pictorial memory17 may have been sufficient, and he may have owned actual impressions from the series.18
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.311 no.88, reproduced.
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.I, London 1908, pp.2–3 no.2.
Forrester 1996, p.110; Sandby’s print is no.48iii, reproduced.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, pp.433, 434.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, LXXXIX.
Brooke 1885, pp.[161], 162, 163.
Rawlinson 1878, p.183, letter no.2; John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner with an Early Diary and a Memoir by George Jones, Oxford 1980, p.33, letter no.19, as ?early 1807; see also Forrester 1996, pp.50, 51 note 5 (favouring The Junction of the Severn and the Wye).
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.161 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.6–8, 97–106; 1906, pp.[9]–11, 114–24; Finberg 1924, pp.1–4, 185–204.
Bruce Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer 1860 – 1942, Oxford 1971, p.83.
Ibid., p.144 no.349, pl.172.
Ibid., p.145 no.366; Robin Ironside, Wilson Steer, Oxford and London 1943, pl.45.
Laughton 1971, p.144 no.352.
D.S. MacColl, Life, Work and Setting of Philip Wilson Steer, London 1945, p.80; cited and discussed in Laughton 1971, p.89.
Laughton 1971, p.90.
Jane Munro, Philip Wilson Steer 1860–1942: Paintings and Watercolours, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Arts Council, London 1986, p.55.
Technical notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘J Whatman | 1801’.1 There is no pencil work. The windows of the castle appear spluttered, as though the watercolour wash was applied with a nib, not a brush. Washes were followed by brushwork and a little scratching-out. The overall cool brown colour comprises three brown pigments; the different shades can be seen in the foreground foliage.2
Forrester 1996, p.110 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘X’ centre
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVII – X’ bottom left

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘River Wye (‘Chepstow 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-river-wye-chepstow-castle-r1131753, accessed 19 June 2024.