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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock 1818

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 5 Verso:
Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock 1818
Turner Bequest CLXVII 5a
Pencil on white wove paper, 112 x 186 mm
Inscribed in pencil by Turner ‘grey | [?]glum’ bottom left
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Drawn over two pages is a view of Tantallon Castle on the East Lothian coast, and the island of Bass Rock (continued on folio 6; D13594; CLXVII 6) which lies in the Firth of Forth about a mile from the shore. The composition is similar to the sketch on folio 4 verso (D13591; CLXVII 4a), though it is in a more highly finished state and the view is more expansive. Standing on a headland to the east (shown in the foreground at the bottom of folio 6) we look west towards Tantallon, and north towards the Bass. The castle stands on a headland, protected by the sheer cliff and sea on three sides, and particular attention has been paid in the sketch to the appearance of the cliffs: steep and grass-topped with fissures and gullies leading down to a narrow strip of rocks and sand beneath.
This double-page sketch has generally been regarded, since Finberg’s note – “See Engraving in Part VI. Scott’s “Provincial Antiquities” –1 as the basis for Turner’s Tantallon Castle, 1821 (Manchester City Galleries)2 design for Scott’s Provincial Antiquities. Indeed the castle itself was predominantly based on the present sketch, and the Bass Rock, although brought much closer to the castle, and partially obscured by waves, is again close in appearance to the drawing. However, the viewpoint of the final watercolour is from lower down, almost at sea level, so that we look up at the castle with the cliff edge to the left.3
The vantage point is therefore directly beneath the spot from which the current sketch is taken, and Turner must have scrambled down the rocks from here to sketch it. The sketch across folios 8 verso and 9 (D13598–D13599; CLXVII 8a–8b) was taken from this point and it was this sketch upon which Turner based his composition. Andrew Wilton has also noted the similarity of the composition to a sketch from the Smaller Fonthill sketchbook of 1801 (Tantallon Castle, pencil on paper, Princeton University Art Museum, USA), now detached.4 The vantage point was therefore in 1818 a familiar one.
Turner’s various sketches of Tantallon Castle and the different views he experimented with in this sketchbook concentrate on the relationship of the castle to the sea which surrounded it on three sides. He seems to have been aware of Scott’s romantic evocation of the castle in his poem, Marmion, from as early as 1811,5 and was here looking for a view to match Scott’s description of the castle:
Tantallon vast;
Broad, massive, high, and stretching far,
And held impregnable to war’.6
In Turner’s Provincial Antiquities design he succeeded in aligning his vision with Scott’s description of the castle, ‘overhanging the billows of a wide and often troubled ocean, an imposing effect on the imagination’.7

Thomas Ardill
February 2008

Finberg 1909, I, p.484, CLXVII 5a.
Wilton 1979, p.426 no.1067.
Alexander Nasmyth used the same view for his painting of A View of Tantallon Castle with the Bass Rock, circa 1816, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Scotland.
Wilton 1979, p.426 no.1067.
Thomson 1999, p.87.
Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, 1808, canto fifth, XXXIII.
Scott’s ‘Tantallon’, quoted in Thomson 1999, p.87.

How to cite

Thomas Ardill, ‘Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock 1818 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, February 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-tantallon-castle-and-bass-rock-r1132141, accessed 25 May 2022.