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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Gibbs

Turner in the Usk Valley. In 1793-94 a young J M W Turner travels through Wales

Updated: Jun 14, 2018

Joseph Mallord William Turner Self Portrait ca1799 Tate

On this page of his itinerary is written;

To Llandovery 12 Miles, to Brecknock 20 Miles 3 bridges and a Castle Golden Lion Inn

This was probably prepared for him and does not appear to be in Turner's own hand

Turner's itenaerary in Wales Tate

The next line continues

To Abergavenny by Llangors pool, 22 miles. View this pool. On the road you will pass the Castles of Bwlch, Crickhowel and Tretower.

Nothing in Abergavenny worth seeing.

However this last sentence has been crossed out and added in a different hand , perhaps Turner's own; a Castle & Bridge.

At Brecon Turner walks up the Honddu and climbs down to the stream side above the Castle bridge and this sketch is the result;

brecon Bridge and Castle JMW Turner 1795 Tate (enhanced)

You can still find the exact spot where Turner sat to make his sketch.There is a gate beside the carpark above Castle Bridge which leads down, with care,to the stream side

Brecknock Castle with Castle Bridge over the Honddu JMW Turner Manchester Art Galleries

The sluice gate of the mill stream that flowed under the right hand arch is clearly shown and through the left arch can be seen the Watergate Bridge crossing the Honddu close to where this stream joins the Usk.

This painting, now in Manchester City Galleries, would probably have been painted when Turner returned to London.

There is a second version , this time with some people on the bridge of which I have seen a photograph but I have not been able to trace where it is now. If anyone does know anything about it , please let me know. (wmgibbs"at"easynet"dot"co"dot"uk).

There is also print based on this Turner watercolour in the British Museum ,made in 1926 by Kenneth Hobson, and you can see that there might be hints of the Brecon Beacons which rise south of the Usk.

There are other drawings in the same sketchbook which are also thought to be of Brecon, this time looking upstream to the Usk Bridge with the Castle behind.

After leaving Brecon Turner walked towards Crickhowell making sketches, and recording ideas in the watercolour book he always carried.

This may be a sketch of the Beacons;

He certainly stopped at Tretower, as advised in his itinerary, and made this double page sketch of the ruin.

Tretower Castle from JMW Turner's Sketchbook in the Tate

and this is definitely a view of Crickhowell Bridge showing St Edmund's Church on the left and the castle on the right.

Crickhowell Bridge from JMW Turner's sketchbook in the Tate

This also may be a view looking back at Crickhowell, with the castle on the hill and the characteristic spire of St Edmunds just appearing behind the ridge.

This delightful study is thought to be of the falls in the Clydach Gorge. The Clydach stream flows into the Usk not far down river from Crickhowell.

At Abergavenny Turner , having been told there is "nothing worth seeing" , paints the bridge with a suggestion of the mastery of fitful sunshine, clouds and weather that he will develop so fully in later years

Abergavenny Bridge , Rain clearing after a showery Day JMW Turner V&A

There are two further paintings in the Tate Collection, but both are dated 1792 and both are of the area around the Skirrid to the north east of Abergavenny.

Skyrrid Farm and Ysgyryd Fawr JMW Turner 1792 Tate

The Tate entry quotes the Turner scholar Finberg " The introduction of the vigorous figure of a countryman with yoke and pails is characteristic of Turner’s determination already at this date to introduce lively staffage into his finished views."

"Staffage" , I gather from a Chhristies catalogue, is a term adopted in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and refers to the human and animal figures that artists introduced to give their pictures more life.

In the less finished sketch we can see Turner trying out the figure in somewhat ghostly form.

Skyrrid Farm and Ysgyryd Fawr JNW Turner 1792 Tate

Though not in the Usk Valley I cannot resist including pictures from Turner's excursion from Abergavenny in 1792 up into the Vale of Ewyas where he made a series of sketches of Llanthony Abbey which he later converted into watercolours.

Llanthony Abbey JMW Turner IMA

We know that altogether he drew several sketches and painted three watercolours of the Abbey which he sold for seven and a half guineas. The pencil drawings of the Abbey are in his sketch book in the Tate; they are clear and simple , the atmospheric conditions not suggested. Later in his studio he conjured from memory more intense visions of the Abbey. Including the dramatic effects of cloud, and wind and rain. The Abbey is set in the context of the landscape , suggesting that the ruin is caused by the ravages of time and the wild climate. This picture is one of the earliest examples of Turner's lifelong fascination with the dramatic forces of nature.

Llanthony Abbey (fisherman) JMW Turner Tate

Ruskin writes

In the collection of F. H. Bale, Esq., there is a small drawing of Llanthony Abbey. It is in his boyish manner, its date probably about 1795; evidently a sketch from nature, finished at home. It had been a showery day; the hills were partially concealed by the rain, and gleams of sunshine breaking out at intervals. A man was fishing in the mountain stream. The young Turner sought a place of some shelter under the bushes; made his sketch; took great pains when he got home to imitate the rain, as he best could; put in the very bush under which he had taken shelter, and the fisherman, a somewhat ill-jointed and long-legged fisherman, in the courtly short breeches which were the fashion of the time.

In 1834, at the age of fifty, Turner looked back on his long career by selecting 120 early drawings that he had stored away and worked them up again in his now more dramatic and grander manner.

This picture below, now in the Indianopolis Museum of Art, was once owned by John Ruskin and it hung on the dining room wall of his house at Denmark Hill. Ruskin writes;

Llanthony Abbey, Monmouthshire J M W Turner watercolour, 1834 IMA

"Some thirty years afterwards, with all his powers in their strongest training, and after the total change in his feelings and principles, he undertook the series of "England and Wales," and in that series introduced the subject of Llanthony Abbey. And behold, he went back to his boy's sketch and boy's thought. He kept the very bushes in their places, but brought the fisherman to the other side of the river, and put him, in some what less courtly dress, under their shelter, instead of himself. And then he set all his gained strength and new knowledge at work on the well-remembered shower of rain, that had fallen thirty years before, to do it better. The shower is here half-exhausted, half passed by, the last drops are rattling faintly through the hazel boughs, the white torrent, swelled by the sudden storm, flings up its hasty jets of springing spray to meet the returning light . . . but vanish in the shafts of sunlight: hurrying, fitful wind-woven sunlight.

It is perhaps the most marvelous piece of execution and of grey colour existing, except perhaps, his drawing ' Land's End,' Nothing else can be set beside it, even of Turner's own works, much less of any other man's." John Ruskin Pre-Raphaelitism

Llanthony Abbey Picturesque views in England and Wales 1839

This watercolour was the basis for one of Turner's most powerful etchings which was done for him by James Tibbits Willmore under Turner's close personal supervision. The plate was included in “Picturesque views in England and Wales” which Ruskin called “the great central work of Turners life” ..


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