Published date: 17 Nov 2011
The news was already the talk of the London art world; then on 17 May 1816, as they were filing into a banquet at the Mansion House, the veteran painter Joseph Farington came alongside Turner to check the details for himself, which he duly noted in his diary: "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. Many of the subjects required, he said, he had now in his possession. He proposed to set off very soon for Yorkshire to collect other subjects."
Three thousand guineas – 25 guineas for each watercolor – was a colossal sum. Yet it was reported that Turner originally asked 40 guineas. Since the appearance of Thomas Hearne's Antiquities of Great Britain in the 1770s, watercolor painting and antiquarian publishing had advanced hand-in-hand. The recent wars with France fuelled a hunger for images of Britain. Farington's own History of the River Thames, illustrated entirely with hand-coloured aquatints, had been a notably lavish example, while the antiquary John Britton had an entire stable of draftsmen and painters busy on projects.
But none of these had engaged the scale of capital investment that the publisher Longman committed to The General History of the County of York. Seven volumes were planned; apart from Turner's landscape views, the buildings were to be drawn by John Buckler, besides images of tombstones, inscriptions, and other documents. The author was Rev. Dr Thomas Dunham Whitaker, vicar of Whalley in Lancashire, who already had a string of scholarly histories to his credit. The earliest of these, The History of Whalley, published in 1800, which also happened to be the first such volume for which the young Turner drew the plates. Since then, the artist had come a long way.
Elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 at 24, the youngest permissible age, Turner became an Academician in 1802. By 1807, he began publication of his Liber Studiorum, a survey of different types and styles of landscape art illustrated by his own work. This was followed by his appointment as the Academy's Professor of Perspective. It made his position as the country's leading landscape painter unassailable.
However, Turner's new-found status did not mean that he was going to put mere 'map-work' – as fellow Academician, Henry Fuseli, called it – behind him. In fact, after 1811, Turner became so impressed with the quality of contemporary engraving, that he undertook an increasing number of publishing projects. They also brought his work to wider audiences, and allowed him to celebrate different parts of the British Isles. His fee for the first watercolors delivered for picturesque views of the southern coast of England was a respectable £7.10s, which later rose to 10 guineas. Within a few years, Turner could command a much higher rate.
In tune with the times, Whitaker's Yorkshire was to be more than a history, it was also to be a poetic response to the landscape. A committee of select local gentlemen was formed to advise on the subjects to be tackled by the great Turner. The artist was a regular visitor to Yorkshire; one of his patrons, Walter Fawkes, invited the artist every year to his estate Farnley Hall. The commission, it seems, was to be wide-ranging; the book was to be issued in parts, commencing with Richmondshire and incorporating large areas on the other side of the Pennines in what had become Lancashire.
Turner left London for Farnley on 12 July 1816. A few days later he set off with his hosts. They spent the next week making excursions to local beauty spots, despite almost constant heavy rain. After one particularly sodden trip over the moors to see the awe-inspiring cliffs of Gordale Scar, they parted company, the gentry returning home, while Turner continued on horseback for more than 500 miles, arriving back at Farnley two and a half weeks later.
Thanks to a reconstruction of this tour by Turner scholar David Hill, it is possible to follow Turner's daily progress northwards through Wensleydale to Richmond, then on to the northern boundary of the county along the Tees. He then turned west towards the Lake District. But the high pass, which on a clear day can offer such spectacular views, held no such delights for Turner. "In regard to my present trip, I have but little to say but a most confounded fagg, though on horseback. The passage out of Teesdale leaves everything far behind for difficulty – bogged most completely horse and its rider, and nine hours making eleven miles." At one point, Turner must have dropped his sketch book; one page is still covered in mud to prove it.
After looping round to the coast and crossing the treacherous Lancaster Sands, Turner was on the homeward stretch as he approched the Lune Valley, east of Lancaster. The watercolor he made of the winding river, with the eye straining to pick out the shape of Hornby Castle in the far distance, is a homage to topography and history combined. Still further on, Turner arrived at the village of Kirkby Lonsdale, the subject of the watercolor that Bonhams is offering in January and which has not been seen at auction since 1884. Whitaker and his friends must have been mindful of Wordsworth's remark in his 1810 Guide to the Lakes, and made sure that Turner followed his instruction to "by no means omit looking at the Vale of Lune from the churchyard".
The care Turner took in preparing his watercolor views for the engraver is evident in his practice of painting rough trials, or 'color beginnings'. Exceptionally, for Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard, there are two: one is broad and serene, blocking in an expansive golden foreground backed by pale distant hills and a clear blue sky. The other is much more animated with vivid contrasts of tone and color; the color red, peripheral or much diluted in the former sheet, now appears throughout, most tellingly in the very center of the view. These two attitudes of tension and relaxation are retained in the finished watercolor. Turner devised a scuffle among a group of schoolboys turning up for lessons with the vicar. The contents of one boy's satchel have been piled on a tomb, with his books being used as missiles to knock them over. They are watched by a traveler, leaning against a tree trunk. Perhaps Turner intended the indifference of both children and adult to what surrounds them as an incentive to make us treasure this beautiful spot the more; the frame of wispy branches certainly gives the distance a privileged, exalted status, in keeping with Whitaker's effusive, "I know not that the site of Kirkby Lonsdale, however admired, has ever been applauded beyond its deserts."
Even Turner's best efforts, of which this was certainly one, failed to make The History of Richmondshire a commercial success. Aside from Turner's costs, and Whitaker's £1 a page, the engravers were being paid an average of £80 a plate. Nearly £10,000 had already been expended when the publishers, in an attempt to recoup some of their almost certain losses, sold off Turner's watercolors. Cosmo Orme, one of the partners in the firm, may have had first refusal. He selected four of the finest, including both Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard and The Crook of Lune. When sold after his death in 1884, the latter fetched a staggering 1,100 guineas. Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard was not far behind, selling for 820 guineas. In 1821, Whitaker died and his great but precarious project was abandoned. Turner had delivered only 20 of his commissioned watercolors, now scattered in collections around the world. But it is for them that The History of Richmondshire will always be remembered.
Timothy Wilcox is an art historian and curator.
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