PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
Although Turner visited Wales in 1792, 1794 and 1795, it was not until his extensive tour of 1798 that he finally saw the great 13th Century castle at Caernarvon. That summer, he was away from London for seven weeks and despite the wet weather, he managed to fill several sketchbooks.2 In his Hereford Court Sketchbook3 he made two rapidly executed pencil studies of the castle; slight drawings which sowed the seed for the present work. Once back in London, he experimented further with compositional ideas, making six atmospheric studies in his Academical [sic] Sketchbook,4 and a small oil on panel, which showed the castle from the same viewpoint but placed a large ship in the centre of the harbour.
Turner’s final choice of composition was both startling and ambitious. Combining the lessons of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Richard Wilson (1714-1782), along with his own experiences of the landscape, the setting sun occupies the centre of the work. To the right, almost silhouetted against the molten light, stands the mighty castle, while to the left, boats lie at anchor in the calm waters. All but dwarfed by the epic proportions of both nature and architecture, the inhabitants of this magical landscape, the fishermen, the washer woman and the seagulls, only reveal themselves on close inspection.
The mesmerizing setting sun, which floods the composition with a rich yellow-orange, is an integral part of this watercolour. It has been suggested that Turner may have applied coloured pigment to the verso of the sheet in order to accentuate the dramatic effect. This was a technique that Turner explored in a number of works from this period, for example, his large watercolour of Norham Castle on the Tweed, Summer’s Morn, which dates to 1798 and, in fact, once belonged to the Thwaites family.5
Furthermore, Turner took the opportunity of heightening the sense of poetry by taking advantage of the Royal Academy’s new rule that allowed artists to include literary quotations in their catalogue entries. For this particular picture, Turner selected lines from Amyntor and Theodora, a play by the Scottish poet, David Mallett (c.1705-1765). He was of the same generation as Pope and Thomson and among Turner’s favourite writers at this period of his life.
Sweet Evening, solemn hour, the sun declin’d
Hung golden o’er this nether firmament,
Whose broad cerulean mirror, calmly bright,
Gave back his beamy visage to the sky
With splendour undiminish’d
John Julius Angerstein, the first owner of this work, was undoubtedly among the most important figures in the art-world of the period. Of German extraction, he was born in St Petersburg in 1735, before moving to England in about 1749. A brilliant businessman, he made a great fortune on the London Insurance Markets, before beginning to collect in the early 1790s. Advised by friends such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence, he built up an exquisite group of Old Master Paintings, which included works by Correggio, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, van Dyck and Velázquez. He also owned three ‘seaports’ by Claude6 and this might explain his strong reaction to the present work. On his death in 1823, the Government acquired thirty-eight of his pictures, which formed part of the nucleus of the National Gallery collection, when it was founded during the following year.
By 1887, Turner’s Caernarvon Castle was acquired by the brewer and Member of Parliament for Blackburn, Daniel Thwaites, Junior (1817-1888). The work has remained within the collection of his descendants for 129 years. Despite this, it has remained a most celebrated image, regularly appearing in international exhibitions and in the Turner literature. We are grateful to Ian Warrell and Peter Bower for their help with cataloguing this work.
1. A. Wilton, op. cit., London 1987, p. 40
2. Turner used the following sketchbook on his 1798 Welsh tour. Hereford Court Sketchbook (TB XXXVIII), The Dynevor Castle (TB XL), The Swan Sketchbook (TB XLII), The Cyfarthfa Sketchbook (TB XLI) and the North Wales Sketchbook (TB XXXIX)
3. Turner Bequest, Tate Britain XXXVIII, pp. 135 & 137
4. Turner Bequest, Tate Britain XLIII, pp. 90-96
5. Now part of the collection at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford
6. Claude’s: Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba; Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula; and A Seaport (all in the National Gallery, London)
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