by Charles Heath for Whitaker's, History of Richmondshire, 1821
As Wordsworth suggested, Turner looks north from the village churchyard and out into the tranquil expanse beyond. Leaning upon the full range of his painterly techniques, as well as employing a highly sophisticated composition, he encourages the viewer to follow the river Lune deep into the picture plane. The river itself shimmers in the early morning light, gliding - sometimes at speed, sometimes gently - past green fields and tall trees that appear almost ghostly, shrouded in a fine silvery mist. In the distance, again conceived with a mesmerizing combination of sunlight, shadow, mist and cloud, the wooded slopes of Barbon Fell rise up to meet the sky.
In a typical play on the senses, Turner deliberately juxtaposes the almost otherworldly peace of the background with a foreground filled with the sounds and activities of man. On the left stands the pink-stoned village school and some way down the slope, a woman sets out her washing to dry in the sun. In the churchyard itself, a group of schoolboys, who should perhaps be heading for the classroom, instead fool around. While one throws a stone at a make-shift target that has been set up on a nearby tombstone, another has stolen a third's satchel, holding it high above his head. Rather than giving in, the satchel’s true owner retaliates by stealing his tormenter’s hat. All these fun and games are watched by a fourth boy, who leans nonchalantly against a tree.
Turner painted this watercolour in connection with his efforts to provide illustrations, on behalf of the publishers Longman & Co., for Dr Thomas Dunham Whitaker’s grandiose book a General History of the County of York. In May 1816, Joseph Farington, R.A. excitedly recorded in his diary that ‘Turner told me that he had made an engagement to make 120 drawings, views of various kinds in Yorkshire, for a History of Yorkshire, for which he was to have 3,000 guineas.’
Later that summer, Turner travelled north to stay with his friend and patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall. From there, he carried out an extensive tour of the region, all the while searching out significant subjects and making careful pencil drawings in his notebooks. He arrived at Kirkby Lonsdale on 9th August and, using both his Yorkshire 2 and Yorkshire 5 sketchbooks, he recorded the village and its magnificent view from several angles.1 Once back in London, Turner’s ideas for the present watercolour began to take shape. He painted not one, but two ‘colour beginnings’ which are now held at Tate Britain and which show him experimenting with the basic structure of the composition.2
This lot, the ‘finished’ watercolour, was engraved by Charles Heath and published in 1821 in the History of Richmondshire volume of Whitaker’s book. Although Turner had originally been asked to paint 120 landscapes, the publishers quickly found that they had underestimated their costs and they were forced to significantly reduce the scale of project. Eventually only twenty engravings based on Turner’s views were issued and, in 1823, the venture was brought to a hasty close.
In the hope of recouping some of their losses, Longman & Co. began to sell Turner’s watercolours. Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard was acquired by one of the firm’s partners, the Scot, Cosmo Orme. In total, he bought four watercolours from the series and when, in 1884, his collection was sold at Christie’s, the present work was acquired by Agnew’s on behalf of the financier Humphry Roberts. He, himself, formed a prestigious collection that not only included twelve watercolours by Turner but also exceptional works by, amongst others, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable and Bonington.
Perhaps Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard’s most celebrated owner was Sir Donald Curry, who acquired the picture at Humphry’s executor’s sale in 1908 and within whose family it was to remain for 104 years. Born the son of a barber from Greenock, near Glasgow, Curry became one of the most remarkable businessmen of his day. He was passionate about Turner and it is recorded that, over his lifetime, he acquired fourteen of his oil paintings, and no fewer than fifty-seven watercolours.
Aside from its great beauty, its distinguished provenance and its long exhibition history, Turner’s Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard is now also notable for being one of only four works from the group of twenty engraved Richmondshire watercolours to remain in private hands. Discounting an untraced view of Richmond, all the others are now in museum collections, predominantly in Britain, but also as far afield as America and Japan. Its inclusion in this sale therefore undoubtedly provides collectors with a rare opportunity.
We are very grateful to Ian Warrell for this help with cataloguing this work.
1. Tate, Turner Bequest: CXLVVIII 3 and CXLVVIII 3a.
2. Tate, Turner Bequest: D17187 TB CXCVI W and D17186 (TB CXCVI V)
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