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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Study for 'Ploughing, Eton' c.1817-18

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Study for ‘Ploughing, Eton’ circa 1817–18
Turner Bequest CXV 47
Pencil and watercolour on white wove lightweight writing paper, 230 x 344 mm
Inscribed in pencil ‘[?79]’ bottom right
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CXV 47’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
(see main catalogue entry)
The present drawing has generally been known as Ploughing at Eton by association with the unpublished Liber Studiorum engraving derived from it, the background of which was radically altered at the etching stage to show Eton College Chapel; here, Turner instead depicts a rambling, ecclesiastical building which Finberg proposed as Lincoln Cathedral.1
Gillian Forrester has more convincingly suggested that the building may be intended as York Minster, which Turner had first visited in 1797 and sketched again in the 1810s. The profile, with its three towers and a steep triangular roof, possibly intended as the chapter house, in between, is close to the summary silhouette in a the watercolour Early Morning on the River Ouse, with a Distant View of York Minster (private collection), dated variously to about 1800 or 1815 (the latter date informing Forrester’s, of circa 1815–16),2 but most recently linked to Turner’s Autumn 1817 visit to Durham and Northumberland and compared to the watercolours derived at that time from his recent trip along the Rhine.3 There are rapid studies of York in the Itinerary Rhine Tour sketchbook, which Turner still had with him in Durham (Tate D12595, D12596, D12603, D12605, D12633; CLIX 45a–46, 49a, 50a, 65a).
The composition is recorded, as ‘Ploughing’, in a list of published and unpublished ‘Pastoral’ subjects in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12160; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 25a); these notes (D12160–D12171; CLIV (a) 25a–31) were apparently made between 1808 and as late as 1818.4 A date of circa 1817–18 is therefore suggested for the present work, on the assumption of a connection with the 1817 York visit, although the Studies for Liber sketchbook may have been in use from 1807 onwards and an earlier date is therefore quite possible.
The design was engraved in reverse, and with considerable alterations in most points except the basic configuration of the figures and plough. While Turner kept the present rough drawing, a proof of his etching worked over in watercolour is assumed to have remained with the Liber engraver Thomas Lupton – who went on to work on two further variant plates – and eventually came into the collection at Tate (D08174; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII T); see the full catalogue entry for the latter for further discussion of the development of the composition and its complex engraving history.
Finberg 1924, p.317.
Forrester 1996, p.143 and note 5.
Watercolours & Drawings: Agnew’s 131st Annual Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Thos. Agnew & Sons, London 2004, p.[40] no.41, reproduced p.[41] (colour); Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.330 no.275, reproduced, as circa 1800.
Forrester 1996, pp.161–3.
Technical notes:
The distant building has a soft pencil silhouette. The very brushy and loose watercolour wash, with both fine particles and larger aggregates of wash, has no fine brushwork over it to bring the details out. The overall cool brown colour results from the use of an umber pigment.1 There is a yellowish stain round the central image, caused by an earlier mount.
The sheet was once part of the Studies for Liber sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CXV), made up of ‘J Whatman | 1807’ paper. Finberg grouped it with the book,2 but as he could not re-establish the original folio sequence of the detached pages (Tate D08098–D08101; Turner Bequest CXV 45–48), he listed them following on from the ink numbers up to ‘44’ inscribed on the sheets remaining in the book. In fact, the jagged left-hand edge matches a torn stub between the present folios 34 and 35 (Tate D40378, D40379; Turner Bequest CXV 43, 44), and the sheet remains otherwise untrimmed; the drawing was presumably begun in the book, which Turner would therefore have used from the ‘back’, as the composition would have been on the verso of the sheet and inverted in relation to the series of studies numbered from the ‘front’ (Tate D08084–D08091; CXV 1–8).
It had apparently been removed by Turner himself, since blots or tests at the very edge to the left, which do not extend onto the stub left in the book, imply that at least some of the watercolour was applied after the sheet had been torn out. Since many more sheets were cut out between this one and the ‘back’ cover, it is possible that Turner originally worked inwards from both ends of the sketchbook. A full-colour sketch of Carisbrooke Castle (Tate D08274; Turner Bequest CXXI R), now separately mounted, likewise originally formed the verso of a nearby leaf of the book.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Finberg 1909, I, p.315.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘155’ top left, ‘[?Plate] Addition before T. Original drawing for R.79’ top centre, ‘J M W Turner | From the Studies for “Liber” Sketch Book’ centre, ‘D.08100’ bottom left, and ‘CXV. 47. Original drawing for R.79’ bottom centre

Matthew Imms
May 2006

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Study for ‘Ploughing, Eton’ c.1817–18 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2006, 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-study-for-ploughing-eton-r1131852, accessed 20 June 2024.