In 1797 Turner made his first journey to the North of England, and filled two large sketchbooks with splendid pencil studies of the landscapes and antiquities he saw. He encountered many great religious antiquities for the first time on this tour: the Minsters at York and Ripon, Durham Cathedral, and the monastic sites at Kirkstall, Tynemouth, Lindisfarne and Kelso. He used the experience to perfect the art of drawing gothic architecture in all the complexity of its perspective and imaginative carving, as well as in the picturesque, often Sublime, effects of their crumbling masonry: these were skills he had been steadily refining over the previous few years. As a watercolourist, too, he was moving forward rapidly, developing new ways to create space, light and atmosphere. The open landscapes of the North - and of Snowdonia too, which he visited the following year - provided the key he needed for an important breakthrough in watercolour technique. At the close of the decade, he drew together the fruits of his experiments in a series of impressive, large-scale watercolours destined for the walls of the Royal Academy.
We are lucky to have a number of the full-size colour studies that he made in preparation for these ambitious finished works. Most remain in the artist's Bequest, (housed in the Clore Gallery at the Tate). Among them are the large-scale watercolour experiments he made in Snowdonia in 1799, perhaps the most astonishing achievements of his precocious genius in these years.
This sheet is a rarity in that it belongs to that remarkable moment, but left the artist's collection at an early date. It enables us to see the intricate and subtle process whereby he built up the rich, expressive washes in which he could convey his new understanding of the grandeur and emotional intensity that we find in the world, both natural and man-made. This process consists of a broad lay-in of subdued pink and blue, over which stronger pigments have been brushed to suggest the shadows of the river banks and their reflections in the luminous water. The distant bulk of the Minster looms ethereally, only suggested. A few details of the everyday life of the river have been introduced, with surprising firmness, as though Turner knew precisely what he wanted to say in this remarkable sketch: figures on the banks, a rowing boat, and in the middle of the stream, a boat with its sail untroubled by the slightest gust of wind.
This is a vision of ineffable calm, the brightness of the sky reflected in the completely still water, the boat caught in the long suspense of a windless evening. No finished watercolour of this subject exists and this is the only recorded watercolour by Turner of York (though there are a number of pencil sketches in the Turner Bequest, Tate Gallery) and perhaps Turner felt that his study conveyed everything that needed to be said on the subject. Certainly, like the finished works, it has been separated from the majority of his preparatory drawings since an early date. In the late nineteenth century the sheet belonged to one of the north country's most distinguished Turner collectors, J.E. Taylor, education reformer and proprietor of the Manchester Guardian. Taylor's art collection was famous in his own day, and a monument to North-Country connoisseurship. He left much of it to the Whitworth Institute of the University of Manchester, now the Whitworth Art Gallery.
Decades later in his career Turner took up the theme of the becalmed ship once more, and produced his famous oil painting of Chichester Canal for the third Earl of Egremont at Petworth. It is one of his most perfect evocations of the tranquillity of nature, and seems to emerge naturally from the meditation prompted by his sight of York Minster in 1797.
We are grateful to Andrew Wilton for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.