Abbotsford, c.1832

Watercolour vignette on paper, 115 x 147 mm

Abbotsford, The Home of Sir Walter Scott

Turner Catalogues: Wilton 1093; tdb1213

Image courtesy of the Art Fund

This is a small, highly-finished watercolour vignette showing an extensive baronial house overlooking a river and backed by rounded hills.  The time of day is evening and a crescent moon hangs in the sky upper left, whilst two horsemen and a horse-drawn carriage ford the river in the foreground.

The subject is Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott. The house stands on the banks of the river Tweed in the heart of the Scottish borders about forty miles south of Edinburgh and forty west of Berwick upon Tweed.

Scott bought the property in 1811 and over the next fifteen years as his fame and fortune increased he transformed the modest farmhouse into a picturesque baronial mansion, and filled it with historical treasures and books.

Here, the house is seen from the north, across the river Tweed, with travellers crossing the old Abbot’s Ford, from which Scott took the name for his house.

Towards Abbotsford from Galafoot Brdge

The best version of the view today is from the Galafoot road bridge built in 1975 and the old ford survives directly below the bridge and the banks are maintained to allow horses to cross.

Abbot’s Ford, below Galafoot Bridge

Sadly, even from the elevated vantage point of the bridge, Abbotsford is barely visible for trees. Perhaps a little judicious pruning might be required.

The watercolour was commissioned by Scott’s publisher, Robert Cadell of Edinburgh, and engraved by Henry Le Keux, 1834 as ‘Abbotsford’, the title-page vignette for Volume 12, ‘Dramas’, of Scott’s Poetical Works, 1832-34. It was the final volume of the set.

Photograph by David Hill

As published the engraving included a cartouche border, surmounted by a crest and the tops of two crenelated towers, and flanked left and right by decorative line drawings. That to the left depicts the entrance hall at Abbotsford and the right Scott’s study, with his desk and chair.

This was the only one of the engravings to include the border, even though all the watercolour vignettes were supplied with them. Oddly in this case, the original watercolour does NOT have its border. Tate 1996 suggests that it was cut off in order to make the watercolour more attractive. It appears [check] that Newark Castle, also now at Abbotsford and which descended with the present watercolour, also appears to have been trimmed.

Turner travelled north in the summer of 1831 to gather sketches for the commission, and stayed with Sir Walter at Abbotsford for a few days 5-9 August. During that visit he was accompanied by Robert Cadell, who recorded the artist’s activity in some detail, both social and artistic.

The best accounts of the visit, and indeed Turner’s more general association with Scott are those by Gerald Finley of 1972 and 1980. These cover Turner’s tour to gather material for Scott’s Poetry in 1831, and offers fascinating documentary evidence from the Diaries of Robert Cadell at the National Library of Scotland.

Finley relates the account in Cadell’s Diaries to individual sketches in Turner’s sketchbooks, and describes Turner making the sketch on which this was based (Abbotsford sketchbook (T.B. CCLXVII 15a-16) from a scar above the river Gala.

Image feed: Tate
Image feed: Tate

This was perhaps the steep scar below the modern township of Langlee, but if so any view from there today is obscured by trees and the modern Galafoot road bridge built in 1975 across the Tweed.

It seems likely that Turner had not yet made up his mind whIch view of Abbotsford to develop into a watercolour.

Image feed: Tate

He sketched the river frontage of the house, but in elevation rather than from the northerly angle that he eventually chose.

Image by David Vernier; Feed from Google Earth.

That would explain why, in the event, the details of the engraving are so generic.

Photograph by David Hill

Nonetheless this is perhaps something of a surprise, given Turner’s longstanding reputation as an architectural draftsman, and given the particularly personal nature of the association. Turner’s literary compositions, however, generally exist on a plane where material rigidity bends to poetic conception.

Photograph by David Hill

Turner also sketched the Entrance Hall and Scott’s study whilst at Abbotsford, but strangely the details of each in the border of the engraving are independent compositions, and were perhaps drawn from memory.

Entrance Hall, Abbotsford, 1831. Image source: Tate
Image source, here
Scott’s Study at Abbotsford, 1831. Image source: Tate
Image source: Wikimedia

Scott’s health was waning even at the time of Turner’s visit in 1831 and he left for Malta and Naples shortly thereafter. He died just over a year after entertaining Turner, before the first volume of his collected poetry, with its frontispieces and title-pages by Turner was published.

The moon was frequently used as a sign of an elegiac intent. Turner made the sketch for this on his last evening at Abbotsford, and Cadell records that they crossed the ford together on their return to the house for dinner tired after a long day sketching, ’12 1/2 hours in the open air’. We might allow the appropriateness of the symbol, even if in that part of the sky, it should be full, or at least gibbous, rather than a crescent as here.

In the event the image came to stand as a tribute to Turner’s personal memories of Scott and Abbotsford. Accordingly, when he came to publish a single-volume edition of Scott’s poetry in 1841, Cadell had the vignette re-engraved on a larger scale, without the decorative border, and published it as the title page for that edition, whilst also reprinting the original in its place in the text.

DH 2 October 2020


Robert Cadell by whom sold late 1830s to
Benjamin Godfrey Windus of Tottenham (1840);
John Edward Taylor (1902), to
Christie’s 5 July 1912 lot 68 as ‘Abbotsford. A view, looking up the river towards the mansion seen on the slope of a wooded hill; in the foreground a carriage and horseman are fording the river. Vignette, circa 4 1/2 in by 4 1/4 in. Engraved by W.Miller, in the Library Edition of Scott’s Poetical Works.’ and bought for £325.10 by.
John Edward Allen [Taylor’s nephew] and by descent to
Bishop Geoffrey Allen, and by descent to
Phoebe Barrow, by whom given 2011 through the Art Fund to
Abbotsford, The Home of Sir Walter Scott

Notes to provenance:

This is listed as a Windus watercolour on the Turner in Tottenham website. Windus owned 67 Scott subjects by 1840, which he appears to have bought direct from Cadell in the later 1830s (see Whittingham in Turner Studies 7 (2) 29-35). None is referred to specifically, but sixty-seven items indicates a complete collection [Wilton lists 67 subjects published by Cadell W.1070-1133, plus 1140-2]. Windus appears to have let them go at intervals. Thirty-seven are recorded in the collection of H. A. J. Munro of Novar in 1865, eighteen of which appeared in the sale of the collection in 1877, where they are individually identified.

Wilton gives ‘?John Dillon, sale 29 April 1869, lot 134’., but gives the same provenance for a second watercolour of Abbotsford painted c.1838 for Lockhart’s Life of Sir Walter Scott, tdb1261, The 1869 catalogue, however says ‘Property of a Trust Estate’ and the association with Dillon is made only by Armstrong 1902 {see under tdb1261}. The reference appears as one of a group of seven ‘Engraved Illustrations to Sir W Scott, by J.M.W.Turner, R.A’, but the dimensions given of 3 1/2in by 5 1/2 in correspond to the second watercolour, and the reference is here attached to that provenance.

Wilton also gives ‘?John Ruskin’ in his provenance, but we might expect that, if so, to have been mentioned by the J. E. Taylor sale catalogue in 1912. Further, no Abbotsford subject is recorded by the Cook and Wedderburn in their catalogue of works by Turner at any time in the collection of John Ruskin (Works, vol13, p.592 ff.), nor indeed is there any reference to it by Ruskin listed in their index. The reference has been removed as dubious from the current listing.

Exhibitions and Published References:

Engraved by Henry Le Keux, 1834 as ‘Abbotsford’, the title-page vignette for Volume 12, ‘Dramas’, of Scott’s Poetical Works, 1832-34, and republished in the single-volume Library Edition of Scott’s Poetry, 1841, and re-issued by A C Black, 1855 (p.737);
Engraved on a larger scale and without border by W.Miller for the single-volume Library Edition of Scott’s Poetry, 1841, re-issued 1847 by Cadell and 1855 by A C Black, impressions dated accordingly;
Exh. R A 1892;
Armstrong 1902, p238 – as ‘Abbotsford Circa 1832 [J E Taylor, Esq. R.A. 1892] Vignette. Looking up shallow river. Carriage and horsemen fording. Wooded banks, house in evening light. New moon to left. Engraved by H Le Keux, 1834, Scott’s dramatic poems’;
Rawlinson vol 2 1913 no.569;
Finley 1972, p.383.
Wilton 1979, No.1093 as ‘Abbotsford, c.1832. Private Collection’, repro b/w
Finley, 1980, pp.121-2. and engraving repr pl.72 b/w;
Exh Aberdeen Art Gallery, 1982, Turner in Scotland, no.66 as ‘Abbotsford, c.1832, Private Collection’, not repr;
Whittingham in Turner Studies 1987, 7 (2) 29-35;
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996 online at [accessed 1 October 2020];
Thomas Ardill, ‘Abbotsford 1831 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, September 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012,, accessed 01 October 2020;
Art Fund website [accessed 8 September 2020];
Turner in Tottenham website {accessed 9 September 2020];
James McAllister, Turner and Scott: The myth and memories of the painter and the poet, in Museums Crush, 2 July 2019, where engraving reproduced in colour {accessed 30 September 2020]

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