Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A.
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A.
- Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire
- Watercolour over pencil, heightened with bodycolour, stopping out and scratching out
his sale, London, Christie's, 6 April 1878, lot 80, bt. Agnew's;
Sir E.H. Scott;
sale, London, Sotheby's, 19 June 1940, lot 30, bt. The Fine Art Society;
with The Fine Art Society, London;
sale, London, Sotheby's, 14 November 1962, lot 55, bt. Grenfell;
sale, London, Sotheby's, 19 November 1992, lot 151, bt. Agnew's;
with Agnew's, London;
by whom sold to the late owners
Lichfield, Lichfield Cathedral, Mr Turner Comes to Lichfield, April-June 2017
A. Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p. 403, no. 882;
E. Shanes, Turner's Picturesque Views in England and Wales 1825-1838, London 1983, p. 155, no. 103;
E. Shanes, Turner's England 1810-38, London 1990, p. 227, no. 193
It is early evening and although strong sunlight has turned the ancient stones of the buildings a combination of molten reds, oranges and golds, by contrast, the sky is heavy with threatening blue/black clouds. A storm is approaching and the double rainbow - that Turner conceives as two bursts of white light - indicate that rain is not far off. The sky is a vortex of changing shapes and movement and the impression that there is a high wind is reinforced by the figures in the foreground. To the left, a group of washer-women hurriedly gather up their laundry, while to the right, a pair of children and their small dog scamper for cover before the weather closes in.
The cathedral town of Lichfield lies in the south of ‘the Black Country’ in the county of Staffordshire. It has been the religious centre of that region since the late 7th century. The existing cathedral was begun in the last decade of the 12th century and building work continued for at least the next 130 years. It is, in fact, one of Britain’s smaller cathedrals and is unique in that it features three spires. Throughout its long history the building has suffered disaster, such as the collapse of the main spire in 1646. There were also a number of significant periods of restoration.
Turner first visited Lichfield in 1794, coincidentally, while the architect James Wyatt was completing his seven year restoration project, to rebuild the main spire. Turner took the opportunity to make a detailed pencil drawing of the cathedral, excluding Wyatt’s scaffolding, as with the present work, from the south-west.1 (fig. 1)
He returned to the city once again in 1830, while on a summer sketching campaign in the midlands. On that occasion, he used his so-called Kenilworth Sketchbook2 to record a number of rapidly executed pencil studies of the cathedral and its surroundings. As he drew nearer to creating the present watercolour, he experimented with compositional ideas and two ‘colour beginnings,’ dating to circa 1832, survive in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain.3 (fig. 2)
Although the present work was not engraved, its size, technique and subject matter suggest that Turner painted it in connection with his celebrated project with the publisher Charles Heath: Picturesque Views of England and Wales. In February 1825 Heath wrote excitedly 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.’4
In Lichfield, Turner successfully juxtaposes the majestic solidarity of the medieval cathedral against the ephemeral nature of the British weather. To achieve this, he deployed his full arsenal of painterly techniques and as a result, the work demonstrates the extent of his utter mastery of the medium of watercolour by this date in his career. He uses underlying broad watercolour washes as a platform on which to build upon. A complex network of tiny brush-stokes enables him to pick out fine details, such as intricate masonry, billowing clouds and watery reflections in the Minster Pool. His groups of figures come alive through a combination of bold gouache and stopping out – a sponging away of pigment to increase the sense of weight, texture and contrast. Finally, he achieves dramatic highlights, such as sunlight on the surface of the water and the two brilliant rainbows, by scratching at the surface of the sheet itself with his thumbnail or a knife.
This work has a long and distinguished history. Perhaps its most celebrated owner was Hugh Munro of Novar who, at around the time that Turner painted this work, was to become one of his most important and influential patrons. The pair were also great friends and it was Munro who financed the artist’s journey to Venice in 1833 and who travelled with him in 1836 through France, Switzerland and Italy. In all Munro was to own over a hundred watercolours by Turner. In 1854, these were studied by the art historian, Dr Waagen, who described the collection as ‘a perfect treasury.’5
1. Turner Bequest XXII L
2. Kenilworth Sketchbook, particularly Tate D22068 Turner Bequest CCXXXVIII 50a
3. Turner Bequest CCLXIII 93 and CCLXIII 99
4. E. Shanes, op. cit., p. 13
5. G.F. Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London 1854, vol. II, p. 141