Joseph Mallord William Turner, RA (British, 1775-1851)
Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard watercolour heightened with bodycolour and scratching out 29.2 x 42.2cm (11 1/2 x 16 5/8in).
PROVENANCE: Humphrey Roberts; his sale, Christie's 22 May 1903/8 ? (286) Cosmo Orme; his sale, Christie's 7 March 1884 (43); bt Agnew Sir Donald Currie by descent to his daughter, Elizabeth, Mrs Percy Alport Molteno thence by descent to the present owner
EXHIBITED: London, Burlington House, 1887 London, Royal Academy, Turner Bicentary Exhibition 1974-1975, No. 180 York, City of York Art Gallery, Turner in Yorkshire, June - July 1980, No. 122 Burnley, Towneley Hall Art Gallery, Turner and Dr Whitaker, July - September, 1982 London, Royal Academy, Turner The Great Watercolours, December 2000 - February 2001, cat No. 33
ENGRAVED: Charles Heath, 1821, for Whitaker's History of Richmondshire (Rawlinson 186)
During the 1810s Turner developed a deep personal involvement with the north of England. This was partly a consequence of his growing friendship with Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall overlooking the River Wharfe north of Leeds. Fawkes provided him with a welcoming home from home that became the base for many of his travels in the region. Those were undertaken, in large part, at the behest of a local historian, the Rev. Thomas Dunham Whitaker, of Holme Hall, Cliviger, Lancashire, where the artist also stayed. He had explored that part of Lancashire on behalf of Whitaker already in 1799 when he researched illustrations for Whitaker's History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honor of Clitheroe, published 1800-1801. In the 1810s he was engaged in further explorations for Whitaker's History of Leeds, published in 1816-20, and History of Richmondshire (1819-23). This last work constitutes a series of some of his finest and most poetic compositions, although it comprises only twenty of a projected 120 subjects for the History of Yorkshire that Whitaker never completed. It was for Richmondshire that Turner made this view of Kirby Lonsdale Churchyard, a prime example of his developing approach to picturesque topography and the relationship between the life and geography of particular places.
Here he omits altogether, apparently perversely, the principal antiquity in his view - the fine Romanesque parish church of Kirby Lonsdale itself in order to show us the wider landscape in which it sits, and to give us a vignette of local life: small boys shying at a pile of their schoolbooks propped on a tomb. Beyond them, the Lune valley extends into a wonderfully misty distance.
Turner relied on sketches he had made on the spot in 1816 in his Yorkshire 2 sketchbook (TB CXLV 58, 58a) and Yorkshire 5 sketchbook (TB CXLVIII 3, 5a), which he made from different viewpoints and amalgamated in order to create the panorama which used to be known as 'Turner's View' but which is now promoted by the local tourist board as 'Ruskin's View'. John Ruskin, Turner's greatest admirer and advocate, wrote with deep feeling about the place: 'whatever moorland hill, and sweet river, and English forest foliage can be seen at their best is gathered there; and chiefly seen from the steep bank which falls to the stream side from the upper part of the town itself. ...I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine, or a more priceless possession of true "Holy Land."' (Fors Clavigera, 1875, letter 52).
Ruskin was particularly fascinated by the characteristically Turnerian group of children playing, and saw it as deeply symbolic: he speaks of the 'brook, and valley, and hills, and folded morning sky beyond,' and continues: 'unmindful alike of these, and of the dead who have left these for other valleys and for other skies, a group of schoolboys have piled their little books upon a grave, to strike them off with stones. So, also, we play with the words of the dead that would teach us, and strike them far from us with our own bitter, reckless will: little thinking that those leaves which the wind scatters had been piled, not only upon a gravestone, but upon the seal of an enchanted vault nay, the gate of a great city of sleeping kings, who would awake for us and walk with us, if we knew but how to call them by their names.' (Sesame and Lilies, 1864)
In 1884 the watercolour entered the collection of the Scottish shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie, one of the most important nineteenth-century collectors of Turner's watercolours, and it has remained in his family until now.