This watercolour is based on drawings made in 1798 in the 'Hereford Court' Sketchbook (Turner Bequest, Tate Britain, XXXVIII; Finberg, op. cit., pp. 83-9). Turner left London early in June, visiting Malmesbury and also his father's friends in Bristol, where he borrowed a pony from his uncle and set out for Wales; he returned to London via Hereford Court. On 26 September he called on the diarist Joseph Farington who reported that 'He has been in South & North Wales this Summer - alone and on horseback - out 7 weeks - much rain - but better effects' (K. Garlick and A. Macintyre, ed., The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, III, 1979, p. 1060). Although this was Turner's fourth visit to Wales, on his previous visits, in 1792, 1794 and 1795, he had only got as far as the north on the last, following a tour of the Midlands, and then only as far as the estuary of the River Dee (for maps of Turner's Welsh tours see A. Wilton, Turner in Wales, exhibition catalogue, Llandudno, Mostyn Art Gallery, and Swansea, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, July-November 1984, pp. 34, 45 and 51).
The 'Hereford Court' Sketchbook contains seven drawings of Conway Castle, in which Turner studied the castle from various angles (pp. 50, 50a, 51, 52, 53, 54 and 82, on paper measuring approximately 13 x 9 in. (33 x 23 cm.)). Two of the sheets are inscribed on the reverse with the names of prospective buyers, pp. 50a and 52. Page 50a, which contains much the same view of the castle as the present watercolour, bears the names 'Pope/Mr. Blake Mr. Leader/4 F[oot]. 8 [inches] long/3 F. 6 wide 70 [guineas?].' 'Mr Blake' has been identified as William Blake of Newhouse, who is known to have studied with Turner in about 1796 (and not the famous poet/painter who lived from 1757 until 1827); the drawing then passed by descent to the vendor in 1981. However, David Hill has suggested that the purchaser was William Blake of Portland Place, who had an altercation with Turner over the price of a watercolour of Norham Castle in 1797 (D. Hill, 'A Taste for the Arts', Turner Studies, IV, no. 2, Winter 1984, p. 32, n. 31, and V, no. 1, Summer 1985, p. 37). Evelyn Joll wondered whether our William Blake lived at both places at different times ('Pupils' in E. Joll, M. Butlin and L. Herrmann, The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 2001, p. 250).
The watercolour painted for Mr. 'Pope' may be that formerly in the collection of Viscount Gage at Firle and now in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, or another version last seen at Christie's, London, 24 November 1998, lot 78 (Wilton, 1979, pp. 329-30, nos. 270 and 269 respectively, the first illustrated; see also A. Wilton, 'Conway', in Joll, Butlin and Herrmann, op. cit., p. 63). The reference to Mr Leader, with the dimensions of the work referred to, identifies it with the oil painting painted for William Leader in 1803-4 (Trustees of the Grosvenor Estate; M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, New Haven and London, 2nd. ed., 1984, pp. 107-8, no. 141, pl. 146. p. 30; see also Wilton, 1984, p. 71, no. 104, illustrated). Leader owned two watercolours of Conway Castle (J.T. Leader, the son of William Leader, his sale, Christie's, London, 18 March 1843, lots 50 and 57; see J. Gage, The Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 1981, pp. 191-2, no. 3). These have not been identified.
The present watercolour, together with that in the Getty Museum that sold in 1984, and the oil painting, all derive from the sketch on page 50a of the 'Hereford Court' Sketchbook (see fig. 1), but the castle is seen from a greater distance as in the drawing on page 51 (see fig. 2). The details of the foreground, the tree on the left and the shipping differ in each version. Page 52 also has names of potential buyers on the back: 'Revd. Mr. Lancaster/45 Gower Street/Barrington [?] [and with page turned] Revd Mr Dunford 10 g[uineas]/Sandleford near Newbury/3 Mile from Reading Revd Mr Ogle aldermastor'. This is, like page 50a, a closer view than page 51, but seen from further round to the left with a prominent bridge. No watercolour can be specifically associated with any of the potential buyers but there is a clearly derived watercolour in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (Wilton, 1979, p. 330, no. 271, illustrated; Wilton, 1984, p. 71, no. 103, illustrated; Hartley, op. cit., p. 35, no. 24, illustrated); the form of signature, 'JMWT RA', suggests a date of after February 1802 when Turner was made a full member of the Royal Academy. There is at least one untraced version, with a 'small bridge' (Armstrong, loc. cit.).
There are further, smaller pencil sketches of Conway Castle in the 'Dolbadern' Sketchbook, also of 1798 (Turner Bequest XLVI, pp. 104a, 105, 107a and, in ink, 108, each approximately 3½ x 5¼ in. (8 x 13.5 cm.); Finberg, op. cit., p. 117, as of circa 1799), and further references to Mr Lancaster and Mr Leader as purchasers of a watercolour and an oil respectively, in the Academies Sketchbook (Turner Bequest LXXXIV, 66a, 67a; Finberg, op. cit., pp. 273-4, as of circa 1804; the reference to Mr Lancaster at this relatively late date suggests a possible identification with the Whitworth watercolour, done after 1802 when Turner became a full Royal Academician).
A particularly large but unfinished watercolour of Conway Castle from the South is dated by Wilton to 1799-1800; he suggests that it may have been executed in preparation for a large finished work like the Caernarvon Castle, North Wales, with its bardic subject, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 (21 5/8 x 30 3/8 in. (55 x 77 cm.); Wilton, 1984, pp. 67, 69, nos. 92 and 97, illustrated, the latter in colour p. 23; Turner Bequest LX (a)-K, LXX-M). Finberg also lists, among doubtful drawings with the note 'Query by Girtin', a large drawing in pencil over a grey ground on laid paper, of a view of Conway Castle, from across the river (Turner Bequest CCCLXXVII-42; Finberg, op. cit., II, p. 1241). Perhaps surprisingly, after this early interest in Conway Castle, the subject did not appear among the watercolours prepared for Picturesque Views in England and Wales, circa 1823-38. Other Welsh castles did appear, though the scheme was left unfinished (Wilton, 1979, pp. 391-404, nos. 785-895; E. Shanes, Turner's Picturesque Views in England and Wales, London, 1979).
When Turner first ventured into Wales in 1792 it was a relatively unexplored subject matter with one of the first notable accounts being that of the leading topographical watercolourist of the day, Paul Sandby. His Twelve Views in Aquatinta from drawings taken on the spot in South Wales were published in 1775 and soon followed by views of the north, east and western parts of the country. Perhaps inspired by Sandby, and unable to travel abroad because of the political situation on the continent, Turner visited Wales and discovered a country of diverse landscapes combining the wonders of nature with the epic majesty of Welsh history.
Conway Castle was one of the great castles established by the English on the Welsh coast as part of their gradual occupation in the Middle Ages. It was built mainly between 1283 and 1287 and has been described as one of the outstanding achievements of medieval architecture in Europe. In its dominant position, raised up on a great escarpment over the sea, it is not surprising that it inspired Turner to produce so many watercolours and a great oil painting.
We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.