Chance encounters with Turner in Yorkshire

JMW Turner: The Strid, Bolton Abbey, 1809

Two days away in a wet and windswept Yorkshire, seeking out short and sheltered walks suitable for someone celebrating her 87th birthday, coincidentally and with no deliberate intent, wherever we went we happened to choose places, all of which, it turned out, had been painted by JW Turner.

Turner first visited Yorkshire aged 22,  and returned to the county throughout his life, inspired by the sublimity he perceived in its landscapes. There was another reason, too: a close friend and patron was Walter Fawkes, whose home at Farnley Hall in Wharfedale near Otley, Turner first visited in 1797.  His friendship with Fawkes and his attraction to the area around Otley meant that he returned to Farnley Hall throughout his career. He visited more than seventy places in Yorkshire, sketching and painting views from many angles – an engagement with the county’s landscape which echoes recent work by David Hockney.

Turner sought to capture the sublime, defined in 1756 by Edmund Burke as

when we witness something that instills fascination mixed with fear, or if we stand in the presence of something far larger than ourselves.

Turner’s Yorkshire paintings epitomise the picturesque, the aesthetic ideal introduced into English culture in 1782 by William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, essentially a travel guide for the leisured class on how to perceive ‘the face of a country by the rules of picturesque beauty’. The idea of the picturesque was a part of the emerging Romantic sensibility of the 18th century, and still exercises an uncanny influence when we’re framing a landscape for a photo.

Many of Turner’s Yorkshire paintings were in response to commissions following the success of Gilpin’s guide.  He would make pencil sketches direct from the landscape as the basis for finished watercolours and paintings (his sketchbooks can be viewed on Tate Britain’s website).

Our first stop was Aysgarth Force, where the River Ure drops over three major falls in less than one mile. The third fall, Lower Falls, is the most vigorous, where the river drops down a fine staircase of horizontal ledges and can be an awesome sight (and sound) when the river is in spate, which it was last week.

Turner visited Aysgarth on 28 July 1816 when making illustrations for A General History of the County of York by Thomas Dunham Whitaker. Turner was impressed by the Aysgarth waterfalls, a popular tourist spot then as now. He visited in the wet summer of 1816 to sketch and paint the falls from various viewpoints. The heavy rainfall meant that the river was high and the water would have been gushing over the limestone rocks.

JMW Turner: Aysgarth Force, 1816-17

Turner developed his sketches into a finished watercolour (above) which shows the area with fewer trees than today and depicts fishermen by the river’s edge. He introduces two figures into the foreground. One has stripped off his stockings and appears to be preparing for a paddle.

The following day we visited the Strid, where the river Wharfe narrows suddenly and the water races with great force.  We walked up to the viewpoint in the woods from where you can see the river rushing into the Strid far below.  In the distance is Barden Tower, a medieval hunting lodge that is now a ruin.

JMW Turner: Distant View of BardenTower on the River Wharfe

In 1808 Turner sketched this scene during a short tour on the rivers Wharfe and Washburn.  The result was his  watercolour, Distant View of Barden Tower on the River Wharfe (above).  On the same trip Turner completed The Strid, Bolton Abbey (top of post). The watercolour shows a figure fishing, a recurring theme that reflects Turner’s enthusiasm for the pastime, as well as being a popular motif of the picturesque.  On this trip, Turner made a number of sketches of Bolton Abbey and from these he later developed a finished watercolour (below), which he eventually used for his own series Picturesque Views of England and Wales in 1827.

We drove further down the valley to the Bolton Abbey estate where the Priory ruins are indeed highly picturesque, in a beautiful setting by the Wharfe.  The east end of the building nearest the river is a ruin, but at the west end the nave survived the dissolution and continued to be used as a parish church.  In the 19th century windows by August Pugin were added.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, on the Wharfe c.1798

Turner made several visits to the Bolton Abbey estate, and produced a series of watercolours of the ruins of the Priory and nearby sites, including The Strid and Barden Tower. His first visit – a brief one – was in 1797, when he just had the opportunity to make a quick sketch while his coach changed horses at nearby Bolton Bridge.  A watercolour, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, on the Wharfe, resulted the following year.

Turner returned in 1808 during the tour he made of the Rivers Wharfe and Washburn that year  from the home of his Yorkshire friend and patron, Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall near Otley.  On that occasion he made some large pencil sketches and painted two watercolours for Walter Fawkes, one of which (Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, below) is in the collection of the University of Liverpool Art Gallery.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, 1809

There is a second, more distant, view (below), framed by trees, looking down from a hillside on meadows through which the river meanders past the ruins.  This one is in the British Museum collection.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, 1809

Turner returned again in 1816 when making an extensive tour of Yorkshire in search of subjects to illustrate the planned General History of the County of York by Thomas Dunham Whitaker.  He made a number of sketches and from those later developed a finished picture (below), one of the finest of his series of watercolours of Bolton Abbey – now in the collection of National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside at the Lady Lever Art Gallery on the Wirral.  Whitaker died before his book was completed, so Turner later included an engraved illustration of this watercolour in his own Picturesque Views of England and Wales, published ten years later, in 1827.  There’s that fisherman again, tying his fly, his satchel and jacket lying on the river bank in the foreground.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1825

On another occasion, waiting for the rain to pass,  we drove out of our dale over the moors to Malham Tarn, where the sun made a determined effort to vanquish the rain, provoking a rainbow in the process. We stopped the car for a while and thought of a walk to the Tarn, but the land was a morass.

We drove down to Malham and walked out from the village up to the Cove.  There is something spookily awe-inspiring about  that sheer limestone cliff formed at the end of the last ice age when meltwater cut back into the cove as it fell over the edge as a waterfall.  There is no water now – instead, it finds its way through the joints and fissures of the limestone to rise south of the village as the source of the river Aire.

Turner completed this watercolour of the Cove in 1810.  He visited Malham twice – in 1808, and gain in 1816 during his extensive tour of Yorkshire.  Tate Britain’s sketchbook collection includes 18 sketches of Malham Cove and Tarn, as well as nearby Gordale Scar.  The British Museum holds this watercolour of Malham Cove, cattle grazing in foreground while  two figures approach, one mounted on an ass. Coincidentally,  Turner depicts the arc of a rainbow spanning the scene, as mist and rain appears to clear the cove.

We spent a few days in the Dales at the same time last year, and on that occasion strolled up the valley from the Green Dragon Inn at Hardraw in Wensleydale to the head of the gorge where the Hardraw Force cascades 100 feet from an overhanging ledge.  This may be the only walk which absolutely requires that you begin in the bar of a pub (where you pay an admission fee).  Perhaps Turner sat with a pint of ale here before settling himself down on the grass in front of the waterfall with his sketchbook?

Turner visited Hardraw Force on 27 July 1816, as part of his grand tour, and spent the night in the village at the Green Dragon Inn.  Hardraw Force was already a well-known attraction in Turner’s time, with fellow contemporaries such as Wordsworth also visiting.

Turner made two large sketches of the falls before making his final finished watercolour Hardraw Fall (below, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).

JMW Turner: ‘Hardraw Fall’, 1816

Turner’s watercolour, like those of Malham and Bolton Abbey, shows how Turner manipulated the scene, exaggerating scale and height, to imbue it with Burke’s sense of the sublime: that which ‘instills fascination mixed with fear’, as if we stand ‘in the presence of something far larger than ourselves’.

The final coincidence in these chance encounters with Turner is that we were staying in a caravan belonging to friends, located on a caravan park at Hawkswick, a mile or so further up Littondale from Kilnsey, famous for the distinctive form of Kilnsey Crag , a towering inland limestone cliff, around 150 feet high, which has an impressive overhang of about 40 feet.  The dramatic cliff drew Turner here, too: on his tour of Yorkshire in 1816 he spent the night of 25 July at nearby Kettlewell and devoted the following morning to sketching Kilnsey Crag.

JMW Turner: Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale, 1816

Turner made a series of quick sketches recording views from the road to the north and south in a small pocketbook, before deciding that the best profile was that from the south and recording that in his largest sketchbook.  Turner always liked to give a wider sense of the situation of his subjects, so his final idea was to take the view from a distance at the village of Conistone, where he could take in the headland of Kilnsey jutting into the Wharfe Valley, with the river and Conistone Bridge in the foreground and the higher fells of Upper Wharfedale in the background.  He made a detailed sketch across two pages of his largest sketchbook and developed that into a highly atmospheric watercolour study, Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale (above).

See also

  • The Turner Trails: trail guide links 70 sites in Yorkshire associated with JMW Turner
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4 thoughts on “Chance encounters with Turner in Yorkshire

  1. Hi, the Wharfe runs just a few miles from where we live. It is a beautiful area, a mixture of settlements and almost-wilderness. Turner really was a genius;, before his time in many ways. Thanks for a great post, Andy.

  2. Never been a big fan of Turner although I do prefer his early work (ditto Picasso!). That first painting of the fisherman reminds me so of my long-dead father who fished the Cothi in Wales and the Wye near Symonds Yat. I still miss him enormously. Funny how little things can tug the heartstrings…

  3. Beautiful post. This is an area new to me but not Turner. I camped at Hardraw Falls earlier this year and had no idea this was Turner country! Wonderful writing and pictures, thank you.

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