The print of this watercolour became the opening scene, the first of four in the first part of Picturesque Views in England and Wales, the most ambitious of all the projects for topographical engravings in which Turner was involved (fig. 1). The commission for the series came in late 1824 or early 1825 from the engraver and publisher Charles Heath, with whom Turner had already been involved through Heath's engraving of 1811 from the oil painting of Pope's Villa and his plates for Whitaker's History of Richmondshire, 1818-23. Heath proposed no fewer than 120 prints to be published in parts each containing four prints at the rate of about three parts a year.
Unfortunately the project was not a commercial success and was abandoned in 1838 after 96 prints had been published in 24 parts (for the project see Shanes, 1990, p. 13, and Herrmann, op. cit., pp. 112-40; the related watercolours are listed in Wilton, op. cit., pp. 391-404, nos. 785-895, and Shanes, 1990, pp. 162-260, nos. 137-225, illustrated in colour).
Nineteen engravers were involved including Edward Goodall; most had worked with Turner before and, as Herrmann points out, formed a 'Turner School' of engravers that reached maturity in this series. As usual Turner supervised the work and numerous proofs touched by him exist. The engravers were paid an average of £100 for each plate, considerably more than Turner. Alaric Watts, the most reliable source, writing in about 1853, states that Turner received 'only 25 guineas (and thirty proofs)': in fact a recently published letter dated 19 February 1825 from Charles Heath to Dawson Turner which reveals that Turner was in fact paid 30 guineas for each watercolour.(see Herrmann, op.cit., p. 112, n. no. 64, and p. 256).
Rievaulx Abbey, some twenty miles north of York, was founded by Cistercian monks in 1131 and fell into ruins after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539. The choir, seen here on the right, was added in the 13th Century between 1225 and 1230. On the crest of the hill can be seen one of the classical temples built by Thomas Duncombe in 1758. The Duncombe family, whose descendants owned the three Constables in this sale (lots 210 – 212), had purchased the estate of Helmsley and Rievaulx in 1687 and built a new house, Duncombe Park on the west side of Helmsley. In the 1750s Thomas Duncombe extended his park along the Rye valley, creating a terrace above Rievaulx Abbey with Classical temples at each end. The views from the terrace over the ruins below were carefully managed to create a scene that was ‘awful, dreadful and artificial,’ in other words the perfect picturesque subject. Tourists flocked to the ruins, as did artists keen to capture subjects which would appeal to their patrons, amongst them Thomas Girtin (whose large watercolour of Rievaulx was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798) (fig. 2.), John Flaxman and John Sell Cotman. William and Mary Wordsworth even visited on their wedding day in 1802.
Turner first visited Rievaulx in 1801, on his second tour of the North of England. His sketchbook from this trip is now in the Tate, London (Dunbar Sketchbook, Turner Bequest LIV) and contains various sketches of the abbey from different viewpoints. He paid a second visit in 1816 when he was collecting material for Whitaker’s History of Richmondshire.
The present watercolour has always been regarded as one of Turner’s finest watercolours of the period and Turner's subtlety in depicting the incidence of light and dark on the half-lit slope on the right is particularly masterly. Shanes op. cit., 1990 draws attention to the 'Early morning sunlight [that] burns off the mists swirling around Rydale in this portrayal of one of England's most impressive ruins'. Largely on account of their joint Yorkshire setting, and the presence of an angler tying a fly in both watercolours, Shanes suggests that Rievaulx Abbey was paired in the series with no. 5, Bolton Abbey (Shanes, 1979, no. 5; 1990, no. 136) but the scale of the elements in the composition, the handling and the compositions themselves differ widely.
Turner included a completely different detail of 'Rivaux Abbey [sic] in his Liber Studiorum, published 23 May 1812 (see G. Forrester, Turner's 'Drawing Book'; The Liber Studiorum, London, 1996, pp. 112-3, no. 51), while there is a variant of the landscape view at Tate, London (not from the Turner Bequest: see Wilton, op. cit., p. 636, no. 1151, as 1835).
Not only is Rievaulx Abbey in remarkable condition but it has an impressive provenance. First owned by John Dillon, whose collection of sixteen Turner watercolours was sold in these Rooms, 17 April 1896, it was included in the great Art Treasures exhibition at Manchester in 1857. It returned to Christie's on two subsequent occasions in 1876 and 1891 before entering the famous collection of Sir Donald Currie. Both Dillon and Currie were important owners of Turner's work and Rievaulx Abbey has descended through the Currie family to the present owners (see figs. 3-5).