Topic: Subject or sitter

Does anyone recognise this watch tower? The artist, John Alfred Arnesby Brown is known for his paintings of Norfolk, but does it have a connection with North East England, as the Laing purchased it from the artist in 1923?

Martin Hopkinson, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The painting 'The Watch Tower' was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1923 and purchased there by the Laing Art Gallery. The artwork description field now records how the artist confirmed in a 1927 letter to then Laing curator that the location was Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast. It is now also recorded that the tower was known as Randall’s Folly, long since destroyed after being seriously damaged by the floods of 1953.

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.


Kieran Owens,

The painting was exhibited and favourably reviewed, along with three of his other works, at the 1923 Royal Academy exhibition. It sold for £525.

Nicholas Barfield,

Fairly certain it's on Inner Farne island, and also known as Prior Castell's Tower. Can't post a modern exact comparison but attched is a credible shot. Obviously of interest to the Laing if I'm right.
I can't think of any other coastal pele/watch towers in Northumbria.

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Kieran Owens,

Quite apart from the architecture of the tower being different in this painting to images of it online, the absence of St. Cuthbert's chapel, or its other adjacent outbuilding, would suggest that this painting is not of Prior Castell's Tower. Also, artistic license aside, the presence of the curving sandy beach in the forefront of the painting does not correspond with the island's topography:

Malcolm Fowles,

If a local view was acquired one would expect some record of it. Martin, can you confirm that the Laing has reviewed the rear of the painting and all of its purchase documentation?

Malcolm Fowles,

If this is faithful to the original view, then there is a second building on the right edge and what seems to be a very distant one across the water. Several individual figures, some dressed in white, are wandering near the tower - a suggestion of visitors? If so the place should be well known today.

Reviewing the artist's other works on Art UK, landscape titles fall into three categories: specific views such as "Blythsburgh (Beccles across the Marshes)", anonymous scenes such as "Landscape with church" and generics such as "Spring".

Our work falls in the second of these. It would not surprise me therefore if the scene were a composite.

Louis Musgrove,

How about the Mucklaberry Tower in Shetland? If it's not Prior Castell's tower that is.

I’m sorry to pass on the very sad news of the recent death of John Millard, who led our North East England group.

Richard Green will monitor the region's discussions from now on, within a new group called ‘Yorkshire, The Humber and North East England: Artists and Subjects’.

As this discussion has been 'quiet' for some months I have undertaken a review in the hope that we can move this forward. The first point to make, which was mentioned by Kieran some time ago, is that the painting was exhibit number 148 at the Royal Academy in 1923 and it was purchased there by the Laing Art Gallery and not directly from the artist. If direct from the artist it would have possibly been a work the Laing had discussed with Arnesby Brown and bought because it was a 'local' view by a leading landscape artist of the day. Additionally by selling via the RA a sale commission would have been payable by the artist to the Academy, so my take on this is that most probably the Laing did not know of this work prior to buying it. The second point is for information, in case the collection does not know, this work has a full black and white illustration on page 43 of Royal Academy Illustrated 1923. After he moved to Haddiscoe in Norfolk in the very early years of the 20th century, Arnesby Brown found the majority of his subjects in East Anglia, and to much lesser extent in and around the Trent valley in Nottinghamshire, the county of his birth. The titles of most of his pictures are not location specific but we do know that he worked in and around the Western Isles near to Oban in Scotland and of course in Cornwall before his time in London and then Haddiscoe. A significant 'clue' in this puzzle is the nature of the watch tower in the painting. I believe it to be a Pele Tower, which were largely found in north-east England and Scotland. Due to the passage of time many of these towers fell into disrepair and a relatively small number appear to survive today. One such is to be found on the Inner Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland. I agree with what Kieran says about the topography on that island but I think Malcolm's comment on 14th October 2020 is likely to be correct in that this could well be a composite of that specific view and other views in the locality. My feeling is that Arnesby Brown may well have undertaken sketches on site and then worked from them a little loosely when back at his studio in order to produce a trademark painting with good commercial appeal. He was very good at capturing atmosphere and discarded detail when he needed to in order to make the picture work to best advantage. I think it probable that in buying the painting the Laing may well have identified the subject as being 'local' and no doubt wanted to add a work by Arnesby Brown to their collection. My suggestion in taking this forward is as follows: 'The Watch Tower'. This painting was exhibit number 148 at the Royal Academy in 1923 and has a full page illustration at page 43 of Royal Academy Illustrated 1923. Although the evidence is not conclusive, this work may well be a composite view of the Pele Tower known as Prior Castell's Tower and surrounding area on the Inner Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland. It may well be a subject painted in the artist's Norfolk studio from sketches or photographs of the area'.......Ends. Further contributions on this would be much appreciated.

Laing Art Gallery,

I'm sorry that this was not discovered sooner, but a letter from the artist to the Laing curator of the time Bernard Stevenson has been found in the picture file, which identifies this location as Salthouse near Blakeney, Norfolk. Clippings from reviews of the 1923 RA exhibition in the file praise Arnesby Brown's depiction of skies. The Register for this work records that it was bought from the Royal Academy exhibition of 1923. The transcript of the artist's letter is -

July 9
1927 [added in pencil]

Dear Bernard Stevenson
When I was painting The Watch Tower” the locals used to tell me the building was built by a wealthy resident who before the marshes were flooded used to drive across a causeway to it each day, under an arch in the building & home again! It sounds a little mad, but at any rate it was built as this or a residence or summer house. When the tide broke through, & the land behind it for a mile or so became flooded, it became more or less inaccessible & later I think was used by the coastguard. All the space on the left of the tower in the picture used to be corn-land, & I believe some work has been done lately to reclaim this. The place is Salthouse on the N. Coast of Norfolk, close to Blakeney.
I have not forgotten what you said about the collection of drawings you are making. When I have one fit & suitable, I will let you know.
Yr {?}
Arnesby Brown -

Martin Hopkinson,

does this painting have any connection with the presence of David Muirhead - see another discussion?

Many thanks to the Collection for the additional information. It is very helpful to have this primary evidence. We will make a recommendation shortly to close this discussion, incorporating the information you have kindly provided.

Martin, I think we can take your point forward under the David Muirhead discussion, to include the possibility that 'the watch tower' at Salthouse may feature in the Muirhead landscape. Someone with local knowledge of that area may be able to help further.

Brenda Lambourne,

The attached picture of an old windmill on Salthouse marshes, c.1908, looking northeastwards, shows a square building in the background which may be the "old watch tower". It would be approximately on a small rise on the coast known as Gramborough Hill, and is certainly not there now. As Grant Waters says, someone with local historic knowledge is needed.

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Laing Art Gallery,

Dear Brenda - Many thanks for the website information about Randall's Folly and Great Eye Folly - all very interesting.

That's an intriguing example of 'the deceptions of art' - i.e. not a medieval watchtower on a rocky outcrop, but a 19th c. folly on an insubstantial mound, both now lost to coastal erosion: no wonder a modern image was impossible to find.

Louis Musgrove,

I am confused. I have looked at the photos of Randall's Folly. It is red brick building with windows.It is oblong-long enough to drive a coach and horses in.
The building in our painting is white, stone like and squarish.It doesn't have the same skyline profile of the Folly. And in our painting the far off cliffs don't match the photos of the Folly's surroundings,it really doesn't look like the Norfolk marshes.
So is JAAB really such a bad artist or has something got mixed up here????

Louis, thank you for your comments. I think it is worth bearing in mind that the artist has used Randall's Folly and surrounding area as the site on which to base a painting of 'The Watch Tower', knowing fully that the structure selected was not a medieval watch tower but rather a relatively modern local folly. In my view it was never intended to be an entirely faithful representation of the folly but rather a composition to represent the artist's interpretation of an anonymous medieval watch tower. The supporting letter from the artist leaves no doubt about the location.

Brenda Lambourne,

If it is Salthouse, I'm not sure that the far off cliffs are in fact cliffs. Up to now I have been looking at the picture assuming that the sea is on the left, where the water is, but on this bit of coast the seashore island of Great Eye is (or was) reached across a wide stretch of often flooded saltmarsh: if the sea is out of "shot" on the right, then the "cliffs" are the inland hills behind Salthouse village and church.

Brown was very clear about the site in his 1927 letter, irrespective of how he translated it into the picture. The other building - a low one on the right - is in the same relation to the tower as the low one above the cows in the postcard immediately left of 'The Folly of Onesiphorus Randall' in Brenda's post of 19/05/2021 14:44, and the lines immediately below say it was 'stone' though probably a mix of stone and brick.

The painting 'The Watch Tower' was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1923 and purchased there by the Laing Art Gallery. On 9th July 1927 the artist wrote to the then curator at the Laing to explain the circumstances around the building of the structure featured in the painting and he confirmed the location as Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast. The artist was also a Norfolk resident. With assistance from our contributor Brenda Lambourne we are satisfied that the structure referred to as 'The Watch Tower' was in fact a mid 19th century building on the coast at Salthouse known as Randall's Folly, long since destroyed by the tides. No amendment is needed to the artist or the title of this work but it is my recommendation that Art UK should expand the detail under the 'more information' section under this listing, in order to refer to the artist's letter of 1927 and, in brief, the information we have about the structure known as Randall's Folly.

Mark Wilson,

There's actually a colour photograph (by the architect Birkin Haward) of the tower from 1953 after it had been damaged in the January storms in this informative article from last year:

which shows it mainly as grey (whether brick or stone is unclear) with red brick only being used for detailing. There's also no sign of the carriage doors, which might suggest they were removed and most of the space bricked up later on. It was in use as a holiday cottage from the 1920s, reducing the size of the entrance would make sense to make it more habitable and increase the usable space. This 1927 painting might be more accurate than earlier depictions might suggest.

The building was clearly still usable till just before its destruction as the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner (with her partner Valentine Ackland) lived there 1950-51 while writing a novel. But the floods and storms of 31 January 1953 took away one side of the building and, being unsafe it was finally demolished in June 1956. Any remains would have vanished as the geographic feature (Lodge Hill) was eroded away.

It had originally been built by the splendidly named Onesiphorus Randall (1798-1873) who had made his money building and letting houses in the East End of London, but who was originally from Holt 3 miles away and bought Woodlands House in Holt with his money. The Norfolk Tales article gives as much detail on his life as is findable, including from some sources already cited here.

Salthouse History says the tower was built in 1840, though that might be a little early as he might not have been rich enough, 1860 or a bit earlier seems more likely. It's said to have sold after his death to the Board of Trade for use as a coastguard station and it already appears as the Rocket House on the 1886 OS map of the area. It then becomes a holiday home in the 20s.

So the Laing have got themselves a nice picture of how dramatic East Coast erosion can be, if nothing else.

Brenda Lambourne,

The folly was a sufficiently well known building in its time to feature on this postcard in the Francis Frith collection. Obviously the "circa 1955" date must be wrong, since we know that the house was badly damaged in the 1953 floods and demolished soon afterwards, but the postcard does show the large area of water on the inland side of the Folly, which accounts for the curving sandy beach in the painting.

Andy Mabbett,

I have now written a Wikipedia article about the folly [1].

I can add details of this painting to it, once its description page is updated and can be cited.

The article includes yet another photograph, from the opposite side to the painting.


Osmund Bullock,

The lower photo on the Wiki page (originally from is detailed enough to show that aside from the red-brick quoins it was in fact largely faced in the local vernacular flint. So undoubtedly grey in appearance, especially from a distance of 4 or 500 yards (my estimate – see below).

The part-wooded ridge in the distance (with ?church tower) on the LHS of the painting can be clearly seen in a photo taken looking west from a viewpoint on Beach Road, quite close to where the Folly stood on Great Eye (aka Lodge Hill). See attached comparison. This ridge is much further away, though, than the high ground behind Salthouse & St Nicholas’s Church, and the angle to them is wrong too. Also attached is a (marked-up) panoramic composite of Streetview images taken from the car park at the end of Beach Road. This is a little east of the Folly’s site, but not as far east as the painter’s viewpoint, which I believe was near the foot of (but not on) Gramborough Hill – again the distant ridge can be seen, while Salthouse and its church are much further left and outside the artist’s view. Also visible is Little Eye, another small hill which is in the painting, about 2 or 300 yards beyond the Folly, and which has so far survived the sea’s advance.

Osmund Bullock,

I puzzled over where this distant ridge and tower was for a long time, and after looking at various churches in the right direction concluded it must be another St Nicholas’s Church, that of Blakeney. This is indeed at the top of a partly-wooded ridge 100 ft asl, and would be visible from a long way off – as the crow flies it’s 3 ¼ miles from my suggested viewpoint, and the angle to it is exactly right. You can see all these places and their relationships in yet another marked-up composite attached, this time of several OS maps (c.1900) stitched together.

This throws up apparent anomalies – the line of sight to the Blakeney church tower passes straight through Cley next the Sea, of which there is no sign. And there are two other churches with towers, of Cley & Wiveton, that are equally absent. However, closer examination of the contours explains it: much of Cley lies very low, next to the salt marshes, as does the rest of Blakeney, and though a bit higher, the two churches are in the valley of the River Glaven. The intervening lumps of high ground are hardly high at all, but they’re enough to block the sight of them for a ground-level viewer. The composite map can be zoomed into quite substantially for detail.

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