by William Miller, 1847
In 1813, the work was purchased by Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo (1773-1828) for the sum of £105, according to Turner’s hand-written receipt, which survives in the National Library of Scotland. (fig. 1) Extraordinarily, since then, it has remained to this day largely hidden from public view within the private collection of Sir William’s descendants.
Sir William was a scion of an ancient Scottish clan and his father had been a leading Edinburgh banker. Sir William was also a banker and thus found himself in the position to build upon his family's already significant art collection. He became an avid supporter of contemporary British watercolourists and during the first two decades of the century, he acquired, as well as the present Turner, a number of important works by, amongst others, John Sell Cotman, John Varley and Thomas Girtin. Towards the end of his life, he also assembled a major collection of Old Master Paintings.
Turner painted this watercolour following his first tour of Scotland in 1801. In June of that year he confessed to the well-known diarist Joseph Farrington that he was exhausted and needed to escape the pressures of London. So, he first headed to Yorkshire where he rested and enjoyed one of his favourite pastimes, fishing. Feeling stronger, he then moved on up to Northumberland and entered Scotland at Berwick. From Edinburgh, he journeyed on to Glasgow, from where he reached Loch Awe by the middle of July. He then travelled on northeast to Tummel Bridge and Blair Atholl, before again turning south. He was at Gretna Green, on the English boarder, by the beginning of August and was back in London at the end of that month.
Scotland had been a revelation and he told Farington that it was 'more picturesque than Wales - the lines of the mountains [being] finer and the rocks of larger masses'.1 During his six weeks there he had drawn feverishly, filling eight sketchbooks and a large portfolio with impressions of the places he had visited. At Loch Awe he made a number of hasty studies of Kilchurn Castle in his Scottish Lakes Sketchbook and in the portfolio he placed a highly finished pencil drawing of the castle and loch from the same view-point as that of the present work.2
Kilchurn Castle lies at the northeastern end of Loch Awe in Glenorchy, Argyllshire. Built by Sir Colin Campbell (died 1475), it was for over three centuries the principal stronghold of the all-powerful Campbell clan. Some thirty years before Turner’s visit, the family had moved its seat to Taymouth Castle, near Aberfeldy, whereupon Kilchurn had begun gradually to fall into ruin.
In the present work, Turner has positioned himself on a sandy beach beside the river Orchy, near where it flows into Loch Awe. Standing proud in the middle distance is Kilchurn, which, despite its great size, is dwarfed by the mighty slopes of Ben Cruachan. Although the landscape is wild and seemingly remote, Turner has filled it with human and animal activity. To the right, a group of fishermen, each wearing traditional kilts and bonnets, are busy tending to their boats. One is in the process of fishing. He is clearly having a good day, for not only is he holding a recently caught fish in his left hand, but, with his right, he is hauling in another! On the beach itself, a man relaxes on the sand, while to the left, cattle appear to adopt the same leisurely posture. Many birds can be seen, both close to the water’s edge and high in the sky. In the near foreground, one of them has spotted a mussel shell, perhaps discarded during the fisherman’s lunch, and it swoops down to investigate. As the snaking curve of the river draws the eye back into the distance, bonfires and further groups of figures and livestock are revealed.
These details are fascinating to explore and enrich this watercolour enormously. However, in many ways, they play second fiddle to Turner’s wonderful handling of light and atmosphere, which is both mesmerizing and ahead of its time. The central part of the immense sky is flooded with golden sunlight, which shimmers on the surface of the water and rebounds off the castle’s crenulations. However, a stiff breeze is blowing and the weather is not settled. On the left, light rain is falling behind the castle, while on the right, a great storm approaches, its thunderous clouds casting dark shadows on the flanks of Ben Cruachan and its thick mists completely obscuring other parts of the mountain.
This watercolour, painted on the grandest of scales, shows both technical brilliance and supreme ambition on the part of the artist. Ian Warrell, a leading Turner scholar, goes so far as to suggest that this work sums up much of Turner’s dynamic experimentation at this pivotal moment in his career.
As noted above, the work was acquired by Sir William Forbes, 7th Bt. in 1813 and astonishingly, it has remained with his descendants until this day. Its inclusion in this sale is therefore undoubtedly an event of considerable significance and provides collectors with an exceptional opportunity. We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help when cataloguing this lot.
1. E. Shanes, op. cit, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 217
2. Tate Britain, London: TB LVI 49 and TB LVIII-16
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