Completed British 18th C, except portraits, British 19th C, except portraits, London: Artists and Subjects, South West England: Artists and Subjects 31 Is this watercolour by J. M. W. Turner? Does it show Westminster Abbey or Tewkesbury Abbey?

Topic: Subject or sitter

Any suggestions would be welcome.

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The record has been updated to ‘unknown artist’. The subject has been identified as Westminster Abbey, although the details are not accurate. It has been dated to the nineteenth century.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Richard Longfoot,

I know Tewkesbury well, it is certainly not Tewkesbury.

Malcolm Fowles,

This is surely Westminster.

Caen has very pointed arches in the choir and apse, but the clerestory is very different, being much taller and with a single arch per bay. See

Westminster has a double arch per bay, and much more squat, as per the painting. See

Why would someone think this is Tewkesbury?

It could be Turner. He prioritised composition over accuracy in many watercolour landscapes (e.g. his Rhine and Moselle journeys), so if the shrine of St Edward fitted better here, why not? Do we know that he took a more accurate approach to other architectural interiors? But why is it attributed to Turner?

Edward Stone,

I don't think the title implies the cathedral is in Caen. Rather, the church depicted was built using Caen stone. Both Westminster and Tewkesbury Abbey are partially built from Caen stone.

Edward Stone,

That's my reading of the title, anyway. Very happy for this to be challenged!

This certainly seems to be Westminster Abbey, though to me not obviously St Edward's Chapel. Someone who knows the Abbey well will be able to confirm the location. Where does the date of 1797 come from, is it inscribed and dated?

The composition is certainly close to Turner's cathedral interiors of the 1790s and around 1800, e.g. his watercolour 'Erasmus in Biship Islip's Chapel' of 1796 in the British Museum (1958,0712.402). But Turner's handling of watercolour, mastery of perspective and lighting is quite distinctive and not obvious in this work. See for comparison the downgraded and rather cruder watercolour of Westminster's Henry VII Chapel in the Courtauld Institute Gallery . The old attribution of this to Turner seems to have been based on its similarity to the British Museum's work.

Angus Milner-Brown ,

It looks like this is the North Transept of Westminster Abbey. Note the foreground columns are quite simple in design and match Westminster. In the background a more complex column is visible which matches the Nave.

Liz Arundell,

As to the attribution to Turner, it is very similar to one in our family. Will try again to post a photo

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Malcolm Fowles,

Andrew, if your reservations about the un-Turnerish handling relate to the flat and near duotone colouring, then I suggest a look at the much later (1839).

For me, the later work's limited palette rings a bell and its black outlining has a curious echo of the white gouache (?) in the cathedral. One might think it a plein-air sketch, but the Tate has a pencil sketch from which it was worked up (Tate D28045). Hence the watercolour style is deliberate, and it was part of his architectural weaponry by then.

You've led me to shed some of own my doubt, anyway.

On reflection, I'm just off to look for a Westminster interior sketch in the Bequest. I may be some time!

Malcolm Fowles,

Edward, I am sure that the title "Caen Cathedral", capitalised with no article, implies the cathedral of that name. I've never heard anyone name a cathedral by its stone. That's like calling Exeter "Beer Cathedral" :-)

The naming error is easily explained. Turner visited Caen in 1826. The Rouen, Le Havre, Caen, Bayeux and Isigny sketchbook has 15 pages of the town, all exterior views. When added to the high arches, this visit may have been enough for someone to make a mistaken inference.

The fly in my ointment is our date, 1797, presumably inscribed on the work. It negates the Mouth of the Thames sketchbook as an source. In the same year, Turner painted the Choir of Salisbury Cathedral, the South Transept of Ely Cathedral and Durham Cathedral along the South Aisle. [All viewable by searching the Tate.] They each try to capture light and atmosphere in different ways, and make particular use of rays on the columns.

A painting of Westminster Abbey makes sense in such a project. For me, the only remaining problem is the style, almost avant-garde in comparison. Was he really capable of it so early on? And if he wasn't, who was?

Or, are we looking at a poor image? Could the collection tell us whether what we see here is faithful?

I have had a word with Andrew Wilton as senior authority on Turner watercolours: he knows it as a puzzle, but is certain it is not Turner though also hard to suggest alternatives (not Roberts, John Scarlett Davis or John Fulleylove as other names). We both agree it looks like Westmnster: its not Tewkesbury and in my view not Caen (where Roberts did various versions). Frankly I can't remember anyone who used white 'drawing' like that -allowing the overall apearance is owing to some sort of degradation, but again of a sort I've never seen in anything by Turner, early (he was mostly doing this sort of view in the later 1790s) or later: if it's acidification in a perhaps tinted paper, that might suggest it's later than it looks by some admiring follower.

As it was asked for I am uploading images of the work in its frame. I was probably framed up in the 1960s-1970s and is very acidic. Despite what somebody has written on the front of the mount the painting was in the possession of Sir Merton Russell-Cotes by 1906. He died in 1921 and this work formed part of the Deed of Gift establishing the museum.

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Andrea Kollmann,

The image of the painting on ArtUK is better than the one here and allows identifying the tomb on the right as that of John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall ( ). The left tomb is William de Valence’s ( ). The artist must have been in the middle of the Chapel of SS. Edmund and Thomas the Martyr looking towards the Chapel Edward the Confessor (

In ‘History of Antiquities’, E.W.Brayley says that the ‘Chapel is separated from the Ambulatory by an ancient wooden screen’ (p153, ( ) which is clearly missing from the painting.
Starting with plate 73, the ‘Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London’ shows the chapel and the tombs from different perspectives , frustratingly they all have a slightly different point of view than the painting.

On the left side of the painting, is there a figure sitting (and painting?) next to the monumental brass of Robert Waldeby?

Malcolm Fowles,

To what source do we owe the date of 1797?

Brian Neale,

Westminister Abbey definitely not Tewkesbury Abbey i have visited both Abbeys several times and i do not remember seeing this inTewkesbury Abbey which has less monuments etc than in Westminister Abbey

The link to the much larger image on Art UK was not available when I first looked at this. It now looks even less like a potential Turner. I am glad Andrew Wilton also rejects him as the artist. This sort of use of white bodycolour highlights is, as Pieter remarks, very untypical of Turner, and together with what looks like severely acidified poor quality paper suggests, as he says, a later date.

The use of perspective is assured and a more likely artist may yet be proposed.

However, I think we can be confident that the location has now been confirmed.

Edward Stone,

This discussion is now linked to the British 19th C, except portraits group.

Martin Hopkinson,

It is important to learn what is the reason why the date 1797 has been associated with this painting, for stylistically it looks much later , possibly by an artist who painted within the lifetime of Wyke Bayliss [1835-1906] who was a specialist of pictures of cathedral interiors. I do not think that it is by him, however.

Malcolm Fowles,

Perhaps we should not be so sure about the bodycolour. Take a closer look at Salisbury Cathedral Choir Notice the light in the chapel lower right. Even though it is not possible to magnify the image, this light does not fit with the rest of the painting and the implied underlying colour of the ground. One candidate for it is white and yellow bodycolour. Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum might be able to check it.

This would be a minor exception were it not in the 1797 series of English cathedrals. As it is, consider a scenario in which Turner is using the series to explore interior light, as seems self-evident to me. He challenges himself to capture the Salisbury chapel lamp; it sort of works; excited by a sunbeam at Westminster, he uses the same approach for a full "Sun is God". Perhaps taken aback, he never does it like this again, though he does exploit white bodycolour when it suits.

All the more reason to ask where that 1797 comes from.

Dear All - I am attaching images of the accession register entry for this painting where the date of 1797 first appears in writing along with some other interesting notations. The accession register was compiled by the first Curator, Richard Quick, who set up the museum as a public body following Sir Merton's Deed of Gift which was actioned upon his death in 1921.

I have also attached an image of the relevant card from the circa 1906 index system which was, I believe, compiled as part of Sir Merton's Deed of Gift project (i.e. sorting out what was going to come to the people of Bournemouth and what was going to be retained by the family). As you can see the card is dated 30.4.1906 so I think the date of 1921 in the text on the mount of the work is a mistake. But I still believe that Sir Merton obtained the work via auction.

I also checked the file on this work and while there was nothing there about where the 1797 date comes from there was evidence which might explain the mount. We lent the painting to the Lang Art Gallery in 1924 and apparently it arrived with broken glass and a scratched mount which were replaced. A mix up about the date of Sir Merton's death and the obtaining of it by the museum is quite understandable.

So, going back to the date of 1797, I can only say that if somebody has access to the right Christies catalogue they might be able to track the purchase of the work by Sir Merton (then just plain Mr Merton Russell Cotes). The sale would have to have been before 1906. If the previous owner could be found then we might have more evidence to work with. If anyone has a clue please share it as I will be heading up to the National Art Library soon and I could book out the relevant catalogue for study.

Additionally, we have been contacted by a member of the public who suggests that Edward Lascelles purchased a watercolour of Westminster Abbey by J.M.W. Turner in 1796. However that painting is not at Harewood House or at Tate. Does anyone know of the fate of this particular painting?

I have changed our database to reflect that the painting shows Westminster.

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Tim Williams,

The Harewood watercolour is inscribed on one of the paving slabs 'William Turner Natus 1775' and was purchased by J. Dillon at the sale of Lord Harewood's pictures in 1858.

S. Elin Jones,

The pillars and arches vary from building to building but they do seem very similar to the attached image. Interior north view of Westminster Abbey. Am not entirely convinced as to the scale of the painting.

Andrea Kollmann,

One quick remark: John of Eltham’s tomb in the lower right corner of the painting suffered from significant damages over the years. The attached doc shows some of the illustrations of the tomb from the late 18th century onwards and the ornaments that were lost throughout the years. If the artist intended to depict the tomb accurately (and painted from the original), the painting might have been painted earlier (sometime before 1818).

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Kieran Owens,

To a great extent this painting is a fantasy or caprice, as it does not show any real sense of what it should. As a view from inside St. Edmund's Chapel towards the tomb of Edward the Confessor, the two spaces between the three tall columns should be filled, to their entire width, by the tombs of Richard II and Queen Anne of Bohemia (on the left) and Edward III (on the right). The 1849 painting of 'St. Edmund's Chapel' by Max Emanuel Ainmiller (1807 - 1870) shows quite effectively what would have been seen by any observer of this view.

Problems with our painting are that there is no possible passage allowing the procession move from the Ambulatory past the left-hand-side of the tomb of Edward III to the tomb of the Confessor. Also, it make no sense to place a wooden pulpit in what is essentially a corridor. And finally, the tomb of Richard II appears to have been transformed into an elaborate altar, which makes no sense either given the rather narrow space in front of it.

The attached (rather fuzzy) map gives a good idea of the sightline.

It is interesting to note that Ainmiller also paints the view from St. Edmund's Chapel with the wooden screen missing. Was there some period in the Abbey's history, in the early to mid-1800s, when it was removed, to be replaced at some later date? Or is it a case of both painters employing artistic licence?

Kieran Owens,

Attached is another sightline composite.

Also, perhaps one of Westminster Abbey's representatives might be able to tell if the style of vestments worn by the clergy in the painting can help with the dating of the painting.

Thank you to Kieran and Andrea for all your additional comments in February and very useful attachments. I hope Russell-Cotes finds these useful for its object file. I would like to close this discussion now. The artist is not JMW Turner, but remains unknown. The subject is certainly Westminster Abbey but not strictly accurate. Although the use of white bodycolour on poor quality paper seems mid-19th century, Andrea's 'spot the difference' for John of Eltham's monument suggests otherwise (the three shields at bottom left). However, the artist may well have made a mistake here when working up a finished watercolour from a pencil drawing. As Andrew said, three years ago now, the use of perspective is assured. This is a competent artist who for the time remains anonymous.