Although this skilfully realized watercolor was one of the first to be engraved for Turner’s landmark series of Picturesque Views in England and Wales in 1827, it is based on pencil sketches made well over a decade earlier, dating from a visit to Launceston in 1814, during the last of three tours of Devon and Cornwall. Turner was initially drawn to the region in 1811 to undertake research for a different project, the Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England, but having family and friends in these western counties gave him the excuse to return to an area he found richly inspiring. By 1814 he was also developing with his publisher W.B. Cooke yet another topographical scheme, The Rivers of Devon, and it was while exploring the River Tamar that Turner traveled to Launceston.
Launceston’s old town rises high above the surrounding countryside and is bound to the north by the River Kensey, which joins the Tamar at nearby Polson Bridge. The town is effectively situated on a crossroads for long-established routes that run from Plymouth to the north coast, and from Okehampton and Dartmoor on towards the far west. Its geographic position and strategic significance led to the creation of the dominating castle during the Norman period. However, the distinctive, raised central keep, consisting of a round tower built inside an earlier circular structure, was constructed in the 13th Century by Richard, Earl of Cornwall.
During his short stay, Turner observed the town from all points of the compass, seeking vantage points that permitted him to showcase the relationship of the castle to the landscape, as well as the town’s other landmarks, such as the church of St Mary Magdalene and the medieval gateways. Using two different sized sketchbooks, he gradually defined the angle that best suited his purposes, which was from the road leading down from St Stephen’s Hill, to the north-west. A page in each of the notebooks sets out the raw essence of the finished watercolor, including the dense summer growth on the trees (Devon Rivers, No.2 sketchbook, TB CXXXII 111, Tate D09601; Devonshire Rivers, No.3, and Wharfedale sketchbook, TB CXXXIV 72, D09873).
But the sketches provided no information about the weather or the fall of light, which make such a vital contribution to the success of the watercolor. This fact explains why, when he began to work from his sketches many years later, Turner used the back of this sheet to test the underlying blocks of blue, yellow and warm color in his composition, indicating where shadows might fall, as well as where the white paper needed to remain untouched.
Perhaps the most striking detail in the finished work is the dark figure on horseback, his toes neatly pointed out, to whom the viewer is empathetically drawn (much like the lonely wanderers in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich). In fact this incident was not invented; Turner had actually recorded a traveller heading down the road in front of him (Tate D09600; TB CXXXII 110). Even so, he was able to imbue lived experience with cultural resonance. For it has been noted that the rider is positioned directly below the castle, and that the shape of his hat echoes that of the fortification. Expanding on this point, Martha Mel Edmunds has noted that the castle’s most famous prisoner was George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, who had refused to remove his hat at his trial.
Alongside his later Swiss views, Turner’s England and Wales watercolours are regarded as his most important.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.