Turner was only eighteen when he visited Great Malvern on his tour of Worcestershire and Herefordshire in 1793. At Great Malvern he recorded the former Benedictine Priory in its charming rural setting, tucked in below the Malvern Hills (British Museum and Virginia Museum of Arts). However, none of the surviving pencil sketches depict this view of the north porch.
Less than a year after his visit, Turner selected this viewpoint for one of the five watercolours he exhibited at the Royal Academy (The Whitworth, Manchester; Wilton, op. cit., no. 49). Only four years after he had first exhibited there, his works were still confined to the Academy of the Antique. Even so, in 1794 he received his first glowing reviews, the most fulsome of which appeared in the Morning Post on 24 May, where the view of Great Malvern was described as ‘amongst the best in the present exhibition’. The critic stressed that, despite his youth, Turner’s works demonstrated ‘strong indications of first-rate ability; the character of Gothic architecture is most happily preserved, and its profusion of minute parts massed with judgment and tinctured with truth and fidelity’ (quoted in A.J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Oxford, 1961, p. 24).
This critical success seems to have led Turner to repeat the composition, apparently to order, in this second, previously unknown version of the same scene. The chief differences lie in the figure groupings and in the greater prominence given to the fifteenth-century Gatehouse on the far right, crenellated here. In order to transfer the underlying structure of his original design to a second piece of paper, Turner made a tracing of the main architectural elements onto two joined sheets, now in the Tate (TB XIII D; D00149). He also used the same process to replicate his image of Blackfriar’s Cross at Hereford, which seems to have been similarly in demand (TB XIII E; D00150).
The collection from which the present work comes also owned a version of the companion view Turner had made of the Priory from the Gatehouse, looking back eastwards towards the bell-tower: the pendant to the work exhibited in 1794 seems to have been the work acquired by The Whitworth in 1984 (Wilton, op. cit., no. 51); while the pair to this item is now in a private collection (Christie’s London, 12 April 1994, lot 53; Wilton, op. cit., no. 50).
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.