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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey c.1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Crypt of Kirkstall Abbey circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVII O
Pencil and watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 184 x 255 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom centre
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching, aquatint and mezzotint by Turner, untitled, published Turner, 11 February 1812
Kirkstall Abbey, founded by the Cistercians in 1152, lies by the river Aire three miles west of the centre of Leeds. After the Reformation it fell into decay, and many of the buildings were put to agricultural use; there was a campaign of restoration in the late nineteenth century after the site passed to the ownership of the city,1 but the dormitory undercroft (rather than ‘crypt’ or ‘refectory’) shown in Turner’s Liber Studiorum design had collapsed in 1825.2
Turner visited the site on his tour of the North of England in 1797. Three other Liber designs were based on drawings from the same tour: Holy Island Cathedral, Dunstanborough Castle and Norham Castle on the Tweed (see Tate D08115, D08118, D08158; Turner Bequest CXVI N, Q, CXVIII D).
The present work is fundamentally derived from a pencil drawing (with the cows and distant landscape touched with watercolour) in the North of England sketchbook (Tate D00916; Turner Bequest XXXIV 10a), though as the lettering of the Liber engraving indicates, it is nominally based on a larger watercolour, Refectory of Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798 (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London),3 which had been purchased for Soane’s collection in 1804.4 The latter is a proportionately wider composition, extending a little further to the right, and with other differences in lighting and detail – in particular, the cattle were rearranged as compared with the original sketch. In the present design, Turner freely rearranged the group and increased their size in relation to the pillar and corbel, effectively diminishing the scale of the architecture, but in the Liber print he reduced their prominence once more. Stopford Brooke admired the virtuoso effects of luminosity in the design, as ‘diffused light comes in on the right also through the windows, and it is with delightful skill that Turner has rendered the effect of this double light playing through the shadowy place.’5
Nineteenth century writers inferred a lesson from the ruinous state of the building and its use in Turner’s time by cattle rather than its original religious community. In Modern Painters, Ruskin saw the composition as one of Turner’s records of the folly of ‘human pride’;6 later he noted ‘the depth of Turner’s sentiment fastening, not on the physical, but the moral ruin’;7 the subject concerned ‘fate and life. Here, where the dark pool reflects the chancel pillars, and the cattle lie in unhindered rest, the soft sunshine on their dappled bodies, instead of priests’ vestments; ... Strong faith, and steady hands, and patient souls – can this, then, be all you have left?’8
The published plate was untitled, though lettered ‘Original Drawing in the possession of John Soane Esqr. R.A. Professor of Architecture’; the present title is the customary one established by early scholars and collectors of the Liber, and codified in print in 1872.9
The composition is recorded, as ‘9[:] 4 Soanes’, 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)10 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.11 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Soanes’, in a list of ‘Architecture’ subjects (Tate D12168; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 29a).12
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, by Turner alone, bears the publication date 11 February 1812 and was issued to subscribers in part 8 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.37–41;13 see also Tate D08140, D08141, D08144; Turner Bequest CXVII M, N, P). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching – also (unusually) incorporating some tonal aquatint and mezzotint rocker work14 (Tate A00988) – and the published engraving (A00989). It is one of eleven published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Architectural’ category (see also Tate D08110, D08115, D08118, D08126, D08131, D08135, D08154, D08157, D08160; Turner Bequest CXVI I, N, Q, Y, CXVII D, H, Z, CXVIII C, F).
A pencil and watercolour copy of the Liber engraving on the same scale (Tate, N04258) was purchased through the Duveen Drawings Fund in 1927, as an autograph Turner15 and was formerly allocated the pseudo-Finberg number ‘CXVII add O’. That it is a copy of the published print rather than Turner’s original Liber drawing or the Soane Museum watercolour is apparent from the corresponding details of the cattle in particular. It remained listed as by Turner in 1936,16 but has since been attributed to David Cox, and has on its verso an unrelated watercolour Classical Landscape (after Poussin).17
‘Kirkstall Abbey’, Leeds City Council, accessed 9 December 2005, http://www.leeds.gov.uk/kirkstallabbey/kirk_st.html.
Hill 1997, p.22; see also pp.22–9.
Wilton 1979, p.325 no.234, reproduced p.49 pl.39.
Forrester 1996, pp.99, 100 note 2.
Brooke 1885, pp.128.
Cook and Wedderburn VII 1903, p.433.
‘Notes on Educational Series’ in Catalogue of Examples ..., in ibid., XXI 1906, p.132.
Ibid., VII 1903, pp.384, 385; see also Rawlinson 1878, p.81; and Brooke 1885, p.129.
[Taylor and Vaughan] 1872, p.32 no.39.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.77–85; 1906, pp.90–100; Finberg 1924, pp.145–64.
See Anne Lyles and Diane Perkins, Colour into Line: Turner and the Art of Engraving, exhibition catalogue, Clore Gallery, Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.47; and Forrester 1996, pp.99–100.
National Gallery Millbank: Review of the Acquisitions during the Years July, 1927–December, 1929, London 1930, p.58.
Tate Gallery, Millbank: Catalogue: British School: Twenty-Fifth Edition 1936–7, London 1936, p.357.
See Forrester 1996, pp.36, 39 note 105.
Technical notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘1794 | J Whatman’.1 The cows were outlined in pencil, which was followed accurately by brushstrokes, though some of the drawing, below the corbel to the left, was simply washed over; areas were reserved for the cows, then outlined. The composition was worked dark on dark, with washes followed by brushwork and fine scratching-out for the sunlight catching details of the stonework, and for the brambles in left foreground. The overall warm brown results from the use of a single burnt sienna pigment. There is a prominent lighter area to the lower right which may be damage, or perhaps an attempt at rendering a sunlit patch of wall reflected in water, toned down in the published mezzotint (scratching out on the edges of stonework within this area implies it was part of Turner’s original scheme).2
Forrester 1996, p.99 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscription.
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVII – O’ bottom left
The right-hand third of the sheet has darkened, though this does not affect the composition on the recto.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Crypt of Kirkstall 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-the-crypt-of-kirkstall-abbey-r1131745, accessed 19 June 2024.