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The castle that liberated Turner

A magnificent watercolour of an iconic subject for J. M. W. Turner, and one that earned the young artist a rapturous reception when it was first exhibited in 1798

The handful of haunting and atmospheric images J. M. W. Turner produced of Norham Castle between 1797 and the mid-1840s are among his most celebrated works, culminating in the astounding late, unfinished oil painting at Tate Britain, Norham Castle, Sunrise, c. 1845.

The castle, it could be argued, effectively liberated Turner as a landscape painter, for it was his engagement with Norham that earned the fledgling painter both critical recognition and financial success. It was for this reason that Turner apparently doffed his top hat to the castle, as a mark of grateful respect, when revisiting it in 1831.

This important large watercolour marks the start of Turner’s lifelong connection with Norham. It was first exhibited in London at the Royal Academy in 1798, less than a year after Turner had dragged himself out of bed at his overnight lodgings on the Scottish border to witness the dazzling sunrise above the castle from the banks of the Tweed.

All the individual elements recorded here — the castle, the riverside bothy and the cows — recur in each of Turner’s depictions of Norham, right through to their abstracted manifestations in the Tate picture.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851), Norham Castle Sunrise. Pencil and watercolour heightened with gum arabic and with scratching out. 20⅜ x 29¼ in (51.7 x 74.4 cm). Estimate £500,000-800,000. This work is offered in Old Master Drawings & Watercolours on 5 July at Christie’s London

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851), Norham Castle: Sunrise. Pencil and watercolour heightened with gum arabic and with scratching out. 20⅜ x 29¼ in (51.7 x 74.4 cm). Estimate: £500,000-800,000. This work is offered in Old Master Drawings & Watercolours on 5 July at Christie’s London

As in many of his early works, it was Turner’s ability to capture with precision the sensations of natural effects that truly set him apart. Here he recreated the effect of a line of smoke suddenly rising as it meets a different environment at a bend in the river.

Turner’s realisation of the sunrise was indebted to the influence of James Thomson, the poet who had lived in the Tweed Valley and who wrote Rule Britannia. Thomson’s evocative poem The Seasons  was a touchstone for many artists.

In addition to the title of the work, Turner appended some lines of Thomson’s poem in the exhibition catalogue, using the text to complement his own imagery: ‘But Yonder comes the powerful King of Day / Rejoicing in the East: the lessening cloud, / The Kindling azure, and the mountain’s brow / Illumin’d — his near approach betoken glad’.

‘This is a work upon which we could rivet our eyes for hours and not experience satiety,’ reported the Whitehall Evening Post in 1798

By 1798, the young Turner had already earned respect for his painstaking depictions of architectural subjects. At Norham, though, the picturesque ruins are relegated to the background, allowing the artist to use them not only to create a bold silhouette with the sunrise effect, but also to penetrate it with the ‘fluid gold’ that Thomson described in his poem.

To achieve the nuanced transition of colours in the sky, and at the tops of the still shaded riverbanks, Turner initially plotted his composition in two full-size studies held by Tate Britain. These demonstrate that his aim was to introduce areas of brilliant light — on the highest points and in the reflections — to suggest the way the advancing golden morning light will eventually infuse and colour the landscape. To intensify the effect he prepared this very large piece of paper with successive diluted washes on both the recto and verso of the sheet.

The response to this highly innovative, richly bucolic and symbolic scene was enthusiastic. Collectors evidently jostled over the picture, but it remains unclear who actually bought it. Soon afterwards other versions were commissioned, including one acquired by Edward Lascelles of Harewood House, which is now at The Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford.

The ambition of Norham Castle: Sunrise  and Turner’s other watercolour exhibits of 1798 provoked the jealousy of his peers, including Benjamin West, P.R.A., who described these works in rather negative fashion as ‘manner’d’.

More generally, the art press praised the striking effects realised in the watercolours, often singling out Norham. ‘This is a work upon which we could rivet our eyes for hours and not experience satiety,’ reported the Whitehall Evening Post, on 2 June 1798. ‘It is one of those few pictures which charm the more, the oftener they are inspected’.

It was even declared that the 1798 watercolours surpassed the works painted in oils that Turner displayed that year — including the famous Lake District views now at Tate Britain.

This magnificent watercolour was in the collection of Luke Herrmann, an expert on British art and the author of several seminal books on Turner which led a to revival of interest in the artist’s engravings.