Mayburgh, with Penrith Castle and Beacon [sometimes Mayborough or King Arthur’s Round Table], c.1832

Watercolour vignette on paper, 280 x 215 mm

Private Collection

Turner Catalogues: Wilton 1091; tdb1211

Image courtesy of Bonham’s

This is a small, highly-finished watercolour vignette showing a tree-circled clearing with, in the centre, a monolith with a tree apparently growing from it. In the distance left is the misty silhouette of a castle on a ridge, and in the right distance, an obelisk on top of a hill. The landscape is framed within a ruled cartouche, with flanking drawings of a fallen knight to the left and part of a similar figure on horseback to the right. Both incidents take place against a background of spectators under a canopy, apparently at a tournament or joust. Above is a crest formed of an armed glove grasping another, and the composition is lettered above, ‘BRIDAL of TRIERMAIN/ Vol’, and below, ‘Mayborough/ King Arthur’s Round Table’.

The subject is the still-impressive henge and standing-stone of Mayburgh, not far from the river Eamont, just over a mile south of Penrith in Cumbria. In the background is Penrith Castle and Beacon.

Photograph by David Hill

Turner’s view is from the south side of the circle, looking north towards Penrith. Looking through some slides of almost as great an antiquity as the henge, I found one that I took several decades ago. It does not appear to have been taken with this Turner watercolour in mind for it shows a westerly view. It appears that another visit is required to examine what may be seen of Turner’s material.

Photograph by David Hill

The watercolour was commissioned by Scott’s publisher, Robert Cadell of Edinburgh, and engraved by John Horsburgh, 1834 as ‘Mayburgh’, the title page vignette for Volume 11 of Scott’s Poetical Works, 1832-34. The first poem in this volume was the ‘Bridal of Triermain’, which is set in the North-East Lake District. For a general introduction to the series see here.

The decorative borders of the watercolour were not included in the engraving, presumably to allow the main image to fill the small format of the publication. The contrast between the epic scale of the imagery, and the diminutive space in which it is contained is quite extraordinary. This would stand much lengthier consideration than it can be given here, but suffice it for now to observe that there is an obvious contrast between the realms opened by these pages to the imagination of the reader, and those which the reader actually occupies.

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.  On his way northward he called in at sites in the Lake District, northern England and the Scottish Borders, sketching subjects that had been selected in discussions between Scott and his publisher Robert Cadell, and specified in a list sent on 1 April (Finley p.243).

The best accounts of the visit, and indeed Turner’s more general association with Scott are those by Gerald Finley of 1972 and 1980.  Unusually, Finley mentions this subject only in passing, and it appears that it has never received any extended commentary.

The sketches are fully explored and illustrated by Thomas Ardill (2011) in the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest.

Image feed: Tate
Image feed: Tate

The watercolour is based, with some adaptation, on sketches in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border sketchbook, Tate D25813-D25814 and D 25815; Turner Bequest CCLXVI  26a-27 and 28 and a drawing on a loose sheet Turner Bequest CLIV K (verso); Tate D40300.

Image feed: Tate

The watercolour introduces a view of Penrith Castle into the composition that is not unreasonable in orientation, but not recorded in any of the sketches. It also much compresses the width of the circle, exaggerates the vertical axis, and turns the sentinel stone into something that more resembles a garden tub in which a tree has been planted. The latter detail seems all the more puzzling since he studied every aspect of the stone in the sketches and noted the exact way in which the tree stood beside the sentinel.

The subject was designed to illustrate Scott’s dramatic poem ‘The Bridal of Triermain’, the first item in the volume. The poem is set in the north-east Lake District, but Mayburgh is directly named only once in passing.

Photograph by David Hill

The story tells of Gyneth an Illegitimate daughter of King Arthur. Once of age Gyneth comes to Arthur’s Court to claim a place in the Royal Court.  Arthur’s knights vie for her hand, and a tournament and joust becomes a bloody slaughter. Despite Arthur’s entreaties, Gyneth refuses to act to put an end to this, and in desperation Merlin casts a spell on her that she may sleep in the Vale of St John until a knight finds and wakes her. Five centuries later along comes Sir Roland de Vaux who is permitted a sight of Gyneth and her enchanted castle and launches a quest to release her.

The subject of Mayburgh seems far from obvious as a choice of title vignette. Turner’s caption to his watercolour, however, conflates Mayburgh henge with the adjacent but separate structure dubbed ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’. Turner did also sketch that structure, though clearly found it less interesting than its neighbour. Scott does, however obliquely, lay the scene of the tournament there:

‘At Penrith, now, the feast was set,

And in fair Eamont’s vale were met

The flower of Chivalry..’ [Canto 2, verse 13]

So without actually naming it, King Arthur’s Round Table is implied as the site of the gathering, and in the edition as published Lockhart provided notes to its one specific mention in Canto 1, verse 7, that it seemed ‘designed for the solemn exercise of feats of chivalry’. Turner even draw a schematic diagram of its form,

Schematic diagram of King Arthur’s Round Table (just above castle lower left). Image feed: Tate D40300.

but in the event, his clear visual preference for Mayburgh prevailed.

The conflation of Mayburgh and King Arthur’s Round Table was followed by the Munro sale catalogue of 1877. In the 1830s Britain’s prehistoric sites could readily be appropriated into any Romantic history or fantasy, and Mayburgh certainly suits the poem’s shape-shifting mysteriousness. Prehistoric sites do not occur frequently in Turner’s oeuvre, but he had already painted Stonehenge, and here clearly found the fumes of the ancient past as intoxicating as anyone. The tree evidently emerging from the sentinel is as suggestive of as magical a cleaving as any in legend.

The flanking borders of the composition, do however, directly relate to the detail described in the poem. To the right is a knight on horseback, taking to the lists, and to the left another fallen in his quest. Scott actually makes a very great deal of the grim bloodletting that occurs on Gyneth’s unyielding behalf. The contrast in mood of the main subject and its borders is quite striking, and designed it seems to provoke a meditation on the contrast of strife, contention and adamantine will, with an ageless and magical transcendence.

As with Berwick, in the following volume, the loose relation between Scott’s subject and Turner’s illuminates a strength of this project. Turner’s contribution being all the more effective for being allowed the space to operate on its own terms, and for the dialogue between the two mediums to provoke fresh poetics and considerations.


Robert Cadell by whom sold late 1830s to
Benjamin Godfrey Windus of Tottenham (1840);
H A J Munro of Novar (1865) d.1865, to
Christie’s 2 June 1877 lot 6 as ‘Mayborough – King Arthur’s Round Table. Vignette title, engraved in Scott’s Poetical Works, vol.11’, 100 gns to
Lady Ashburton;
Phillips, London – 15 April 1985 No. 147, as ‘Mayborough’, repro b/w, £9,900 to
Private collection;

Notes to the provenance:

This is listed as a Windus watercolour on the Turner in Tottenham website. Windus owned sixty-seven 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 indicate 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. Five were ‘Poetry’ subjects of which this is one.

Wilton 1979 says that the present watercolour was bought by Lady Ashburton at the 1877 sale of the Munro collection, but Christie’s salebook says that it was knocked down to ‘Gibbs’ i.e the dealer Horace Gibbs, who might well have bought it on Lady Ashburton’s behalf.

Published references and exhibitions:

Engraved by J Horsburgh, 1834, as ‘Mayburgh’, the title-page vignette for volume 11 ‘Bridal of Triermain’ for Scott’s Poetical Works, 1832-4;
Frost and Reeve, 1865 nos 63-99 as ‘Thirty-seven Illustrations to Sir Walter Scott. Size – 19 oblong subjects, 3 5/8 ins high by 5 5/8 ins wide; 18 vignettes, 6 in high by 3 wide.’ Armstrong 1902, p.266 as “Mayborough; or, “King Arthur’s Round Table”. Circa 1831. [Ex Novar Collection. Chr. 1887, Munro] Vignette. Large stone in centre of circular grassy entrenchment, enclosed by grove of trees. Apparently Mayborough, near Ullswater, and not the smaller adjacent ring called “King Arthur’s Round Table” Engraved by J Horsburgh, 1833, Scott’s ” Bridal of Triermain”;
Rawlinson, volume 2, 1913 no.514;
Wilton 1979, No.1091, as ‘Mayburgh, c.1832’, untraced, not repr;
Finley, 1980, p.91, 243, and engr repr pl.26 b/w;
Turner Studies 1985, 5(2)61, reporting 1985 sale, not repr;
Whittingham in Turner Studies 1987, 7 (2) 29-35;
Tate 1993/ Piggott 1993 ‘Turner’s Vignettes’, engr exh no.43;
Thomas Ardill, ‘Mayburgh Henge, Eamont Bridge, Penrith 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 08 October 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]

DH 08 October 2020

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