A label formerly attached to the backboard read 'a river (crossed by a bridge) flowing through a valley with hills either side, cows in shallow water in front, glowing effect of evening sun' and 'This was the great artist's work on admission as an associate of the Royal Academy'. Turner became an A.R.A. in 1799, but in fact it was only on election as a full member of the Royal Academy that one had to submit a diploma work, and on becoming a full R.A. in 1802 Turner sent in another Welsh view but one in oils, his Dolbadern Castle, North Wales, shown at the Academy in 1800.
The reappearance of this magnificent large watercolour modifies an already complicated story. Sir Walter Armstrong listed two versons of the composition, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (no. 978-1000, Henry Vaughan bequest; ex-Harvey), as 'Usk, Bridge over, near Abergavenny', 16 x 25in. (W. Armstrong, Turner, London and New York, 1902, p. 281), and another in the collection of Abel Buckley as 'Llangollen, Vale of (or rather Usk?)', as signed 'W. Turner', and as having been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886 as 'Llangollen' and also at Glasgow in 1901, 16 3/8 x 25½in. (Armstrong, p. 262). Andrew Wilton catalogues the same two works, the Victoria and Albert Museum version as 'Abergavenny bridge, Monmouthshire: clearing up after a showery daty', the title of the 1799 exhibit (A. Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg and London, 1979, p. 328 no. 252), and the Abel Buckley version, now listed as untraced but as having been in the Allnut sale at Christie's in 1863, under the title 'Bridge over the Usk, near Abergavenny' (Wilton, p. 328 no. 253). Unfortunately he muddles the issue by giving incorrect sizes, 413 x 760mm. and 413 x 759mm. respectively, the lateral dimensions being for too great for the proportions of the works (the catalogue by L. Lambourne and J. Hamilton, British Watercolours in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980, p. 385, gives, with the title 'A Bridge over the Usk', the dimensions (16¼ x 24 7/8in. or 412 x 633mm.). More recently, in his entry on the Victoria and Albert version in the catalogue of the exhibition Turner in Wales (Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, and Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, July-September 1984, p. 58 no. 64, repr in colour p. 16) Wilton adds that there is a third example in a private collection, presumably this version, the reappearance of which with its inscription on the back confirms that the subject is the Abergavenny Bridge rather than Llangollen, which is on the Dee in North Wales.
The reappearance of this wateroclour, signed and considerably larger than the two previously recorded versions, also suggests that this was the work exhibited by Turner at the Royal Academy in 1799. Moreover it was probably also the work referred to by Joseph Farington in his diary on 13 March 1799: 'W Turner I called on & saw his drawing of Abergavenny Bridge, made for Lawrence' - Thomas Lawrence, later Sir Thomas and President of the Royal Academy, whose collection of Old Master drawings was famous (K. Garlick, A. Macintyre and K. Cave, The Diaries of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, vol. IV, 1979, p. 1172). Unfortunately the complete provenance of the watercolour is not known and it is not possible to confirm that it belonged to Lawrence.
Turner had been to Abergavenny on his tours of South Wales in 1792 and 1795 but Wilton has suggested that a rough sketch in the Dynevor Castle sketchbook, used on a further trip throughout Wales in 1798, was the basis for this composition. Turner had been staying with his friends the Narroways in Bristol in the summer of 1798 and, according to Mr. Narroway's neice Ann Dart, writing many years later, 'Turner went from my uncle's house on a sketching tour of North Wales. My uncle gave him a pony, and lent him a saddle, bridle and cloak, but these he never returned' (A.J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Oxford, 1939, 2nd ed. 1961, p. 51; see also Wilton 1984, p. 52). Turner went from Bristol via Chepstow to Monmouth and then up the Usk to Brecon, passing Abergavenny. Subsequently he travelled west to Carmarthen and then up the coast to North Wales. He was back in London in September: Farington noted in his diary on 26 September 1798 that 'Wm. Turner called on me. He has been in South and North Wales this Summer - alone and on horseback - out 7 weeks - much rain but better for effects' (Diaries, III, 1979, p. 1060). Farington continued, 'I mentioned election of Associates to him. He should have my vote. He expressed himself modestly for my good opinion'. This is perhaps the source for the mistaken inference on the label referred to at the beginning of this entry