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'Wells Cathedral', (circa 1795), by JMW Turner (1775-1851)


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About the artwork

'Well's Cathedral' was on loan to the Walker Art Gallery as part of the exhibition 'Turner's Journeys of the Imagination'. The painting is part of the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Joseph Mallord William Turner is widely considered the greatest landscapist that Britain has produced. Too progressive for many tastes during his own lifetime, he exerted considerable influence upon artists later in the nineteenth century. Among them were the American painters of the Hudson River school. They responded powerfully to Turner's elemental handling of extremes of nature. The French Impressionists emulated his ability to use paint to describe fleeting, evanescent effects of nature. Later, the European Symbolists admired the poetic, visionary quality of his landscapes and the way he infused them with a range of metaphysical meanings.

Born in London, the son of a Covent Garden barber, Turner was a youthful prodigy. He was making drawings of professional quality by the age of twelve. He was just fifteen when he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in the spring of 1790.

As a young man, Turner avidly studied the works both of contemporaries and of earlier landscape masters, above all from their technical and intellectual aspects. But he was trained as an architectural and topographical draughtsman. His later career as an ambitious landscapist in oils and watercolours emerged from the fashion for tinted drawings of buildings and the theories of the Picturesque current in the late eighteenth century. Turner worked almost exclusively within the tradition of the picturesque topographical watercolour until the age of 20 in 1795. 'Wells Cathedral' is among the works he produced in this first phase of his career.

In the summer of 1791 Turner paid a visit to family relations who lived in Bristol. This was the first of the 'tours' he was to make almost every year of his life. They provided him with the raw material for the landscapes he worked on in his studio. During the trip he journeyed from Bristol to a number of neighbouring towns with significant medieval churches, such as Bath and Malmesbury.

Turner probably visited Wells, a cathedral city in Somerset some 25 miles south of Bristol, at this time. Unfortunately any sketches he made on the spot do not appear to have survived. 'Wells Cathedral' is a formal watercolour, made in the studio after Turner had returned to London and perhaps as much as four years after his 1791 visit to the West Country. The traditional date given to it is based on stylistic comparison with watercolours of other medieval abbeys and cathedrals which Turner exhibited in 1794 and 1795.

'Well's Cathedral' was on loan to the Walker Art Gallery as part of the exhibition 'Turner's Journeys of the Imagination'. The painting is part of the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

The diocese of Wells was created in the 10th century and the present cathedral was begun around 1180. One of its most picturesque glories and its best-known feature is its west front. This dates from the first half of the 13th century. It was completed by the addition of towers in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The programme of sculpture that decorates the front is one of the richest and most beautiful to adorn any English cathedral. The immediate surroundings of the cathedral at Wells are also notable for a group of unspoilt medieval buildings. These including several rows of houses built for the use of the junior clergy. Some of these are visible in the background of Turner's view.

Turner emphasises the grandeur of the west front of the cathedral. He induces sensations of awe and even disorientation through the use of foreshortening and ambiguous perspective. The near, south-western tower bulks colossally large in comparison to its neighbour. As if viewing them through a slightly convex lens, Turner distorts both the horizontal and vertical planes of the towers. The near one appears to sway towards the viewer while the further one falls away. The effect of this is to challenge the viewer's confidence in the permanence and solidity of the architecture and to induce a sensation of fragility and transience. 

Feelings of impermanence are re-enforced in the remainder of Turner's conception. Clouds race across the sky. The warm sun of a summer evening falls on the stones and throws long shadows from the figures playing cricket - an irreverent activity so close to the house of God. In the foreground a cluster of children's hoops, symbols of foolish and futile human endeavour, are prominent. Turner stresses the secular and 'everyday' nature of the scene. The human activity portrayed happens to take place against the backdrop of a grand religious building, but no clergyman is present. The relevance of religious faith in the contemplation of the image is made to seem remote.

The original colours used by Turner on 'Wells Cathedral' have faded from exposure to light. However, the work still offers considerable insight into his watercolour technique during his late teens. His pencil underdrawing, establishing the basic shapes of the composition, is clearly visible. On top of these are Turner's layers of transparent wash. Starting with light areas in the background, darker areas are gradually overlaid, mostly depicting denser and more solid objects closer to the spectator's vantage point. The way Turner has built up the shape of the north-western tower on top of the white cloud laid in underneath it is a particularly characteristic example of his method.