Lot 191
  • 191

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A.

300,000 - 500,000 GBP
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  • Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A.
  • Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire
  • Watercolour over pencil, heightened with bodycolour, stopping out and scratching out
  • 287 by 436 mm


H.A.J. Munro, of Novar (1794-1864);
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;
Professor Schnabel;
sale, London, Sotheby's, 19 November 1992, lot 151, bt. Agnew's;
with Agnew's, London;
by whom sold to the late owners


London, Lefevre Gallery, Important 19th and 20th Century Works of Art, 1983, no. 27;
Lichfield, Lichfield Cathedral, Mr Turner Comes to Lichfield, April-June 2017 


Sir W. Armstrong, Turner, London 1902, p. 261;
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


Support This large watercolour on a sheet of wove paper is inlaid into another sheet of modern paper. There is a small supported tear skilfully repaired in the detail under the Cathedral. The sky shows some uneven mottling, mainly on the left-hand side. The condition of the support sheet is otherwise good. There is evidence of the verso having been sanded down at some point. Medium The pigments are fairly bright but subtle as well and in a good condition. The sky has a few areas of retouching. Note: This work was viewed outside studio conditions.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

In this large watercolour, which dates to circa 1832, Turner presents the viewer with a rich, dramatic and complex composition. Standing at the south-western edge of the ‘Minster Pool’ he looks directly across the expanse of water, which is alive with a multitude of colours and reflections. The landscape is dominated by the mighty cathedral that towers over the chimneys of the other buildings that populate the close.

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