by J.C. Varrall, 1829, for Heath's Picturesque Views in England and Wales
This celebrated watercolour was among the first works to be engraved for Charles Heath’s publishing project Picturesque Views in England and Wales. In February 1825, Heath wrote enthusiastically to a friend ‘I have just begun a most splendid work [with] Turner the Academician. He is making me 120 drawings of England and Wales – I have got four and they are the finest things I ever saw… I mean to have them engraved by all the first Artists.’1 The publication was to be produced in parts and the first tranche was ready by March 1827. Malmesbury was engraved in 1829 by J.C. Varrall and included in the fifth volume. In the summer of 1833, Heath organised an exhibition of sixty-six watercolours from the series, including the present work, at the Moon, Boys and Graves Gallery at 6 Pall Mall, London. After a soirée one evening at the gallery, The Times reported that ‘two hundred artists and literati’2 had been present and it was also noted that ‘Turner himself was there, his coarse, stout person, heavy look and homely manners contrasting strangely with the marvellous beauty and grace of the surrounding creations of his pencil.’3 Despite the critical success of the exhibition, the engravings were unprofitable for Heath. By 1836 he had decided to reduce the number of prints to ninety-six and in 1838 the project was abandoned all together.
Malmesbury Abbey lies about thirty miles to the north-east of Bristol and the 12th century ruins had captivated Turner since his first visit, aged only sixteen, in 1791. He was to return there the following year and once again in 1798. On that last occasion, he made a detailed pencil drawing of the abbey from a distance in his Hereford Court Sketchbook and it would seem that that sheet provided the starting point for the present work.4
In Malmesbury Abbey, Turner is working at the very height of his creative powers and the watercolour demonstrates the dazzling effects and techniques that he had perfected by the middle of the 1820s. Above all, his sense of colour is exquisite and the refined combination of pinks, yellows, greens and blues anticipates those great masters of the second half of the 19th century: the French Impressionists.
This work has a long and interesting provenance. Its first owner was probably Thomas Tomkison (c.1764-1853), a celebrated piano maker, who had known Turner since their boyhood in Covent Garden.5 According to the original catalogue of the 1833, Moon, Boys and Graves Gallery exhibition, alongside Malmesbury, Tomkinson [sic] also owned another four watercolours from the England and Wales Series.6 The work later belonged to the legendary Turner collector, Hugh Munro of Novar (see lot 191 for more details), before gracing several other distinguished collections. It last appeared at auction in June 1977.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell and Cecilia Powell for their help when cataloguing this work.
1. E. Shanes, lit.op.cit. p.13
2. E. Shanes, lit.op.cit., p.16
4. Tate Britain TB XXXVIII I
5. The spelling of the name Tomkison varies throughout the literature. Sometimes it is spelt: Tomkison, on other occasions: Tomkinson and on others: Tomiknson.
6. E. Shanes, lit.op.cit, p.157
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