Skiddaw from the southern end of Derwentwater, c.1832

Watercolour on paper, 101 x 152 mm


Turner Catalogues: Wilton 1090; tdb1210

Photograph by David Hill

This is a small, highly-finished watercolour showing a lake and mountain. A string of cattle stands in the water in the foreground and the bank recedes at the right to the distant mountain. The watercolour is currently untraced and appears never to have been reproduced except for its engraving.

The subject is Skiddaw in the northern Lake District, seen from the southern end of Derwentwater near Lodore. The view is almost unchanged to this day.

Skiddaw and Derwentwater from Grange Fell
Photograph by David Hill

The watercolour was commissioned by Scott’s publisher, Robert Cadell of Edinburgh, and engraved by John Horsburgh, 1834 as ‘Skiddaw’, the frontispiece 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.

Photograph by David Hill

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 individually discussed and illustrated by Thomas Ardill (2011) in the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest.

Finley mistakenly says that this is a view from Bassenthwaite, but Hill 1995 established that it is, rather, taken from the southern end of Derwentwater. Wilton cites Turner’s sketch of the subject as that in the Rokeby and Appleby sketchbook (T.B. CCLXIV, 44v-45; Tate D25610), but Turner’s main sketch of the subject is in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border sketchbook, TB CCLXVI 20a-21; Tate D25800-25801.

Image feed: Tate
Image feed: Tate

The subject was designed to illustrate Scott’s dramatic poem ‘The Bridal of Triermain’, the first item in volume 11 of the ‘Poetical Works’. The poem is set in the north-east Lake District, but has nothing whatsoever to do with Derwentwater or Skiddaw, except for the slightest passing mention.

Instead the story tells of Gyneth an Illegitimate daughter of King Arthur. Once of age she goes to Arthur’s court at Carlisle to claim her birthright. Arthur’s knights vie for her hand, and a tournament and joust descends into bloody slaughter. Despite Arthur’s entreaties, Gyneth refuses to put an end to the carnage, 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 of Triermain Castle, which is about ten miles north-east of Carlisle. Resting after battle with the Scots, he receives a vision of Gyneth and her enchanted castle and launches a quest to release her.

St John’s Vale lies south of the Penrith to Keswick road about half-way between Derwentwater and Ullswater, and would have been the most appropriate subject for any frontispiece to the ‘Bridal of Triermain’. It appears that the selection of subject was not yet fully settled, for Turner explored several subjects in the vicinity of Keswick.

He began work by returning to a viewpoint that he had first sketched and painted in 1797 and 1801, looking south from near Keswick towards Lodore and Borrowdale (TB CCLXVI 18a-19; Tate D25796-7). Working his way south he next took a view to Lodore from about half way down the eastern shore (TB CCLXVI 19a-20; Tate D25798-9) before arriving at the view finally selected, taken from the slopes south of the Lodore Hotel, looking north to Skiddaw over the debouchement of the river Derwent.

After that he returned towards Keswick and tried views from above Keswick, panning right round the lakes of Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite (TB CCLXVI 21a-22, 22a-23, 23a, 24; Tate D35802-3, D25804-5, D24806, D24807, all incorrectly identified in Tate online catalogue as Ullswater).

Turner also made a couple of very quick sketches of the same aspect of Skiddaw as the present watercolour, together with a very quick thumbnail study of the composition. But quite why this view of Skiddaw was selected or by whom is uncertain. Given the energy that Turner invested in exploring the area, and the earlier sketches of many of these subjects made in 1797, it is doubly remarkable that the artist treated his material with some considerably artistic freedom, choosing rather to imagine the scene from the lake shore, and to remember the form of Skiddaw in extremely condensed form.

The looseness of relationship between image and poem is perhaps worth considering further. Travelling from Keswick to Penrith, Turner made some quick sketches of St John’s Vale (Rokeby and Appleby sketchbook, TB CCXLIV inside cover; Tate D41065, and 29a, Tate D25580). He also made two quick sketches on one page in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border sketchbook, TB CCLXVI 30; Tate D25819

Image feed: Tate

Both of the latter are good enough for him to have made something out of them, and Turner seems to have considered the subject seriously since there are two further studies on a loose sheet of miscellaneous Scott-related subjects (Turner Bequest CLIV K verso; Tate D40300).

Image feed: Tate

St John’s Vale was surely a site that Turner could have treated as a tour de force, but in the event it was rejected.

Perhaps it was felt that Turner’s vision should not be yoked too subserviently to Scott’s, and that the project would gain strength from allowing the artist being to exercise his own poetics without particular reference to Scott. Derwentwater was already an important theme to Turner, and in revisiting it in 1831 Turner tapped further streams of imaginative potential. As Scott’s poem transmuted the poet’s experience of the northern Lakes so the watercolour transmuted the artist’s; and set the latter in dialogue with the poetry rather than in its service.


Robert Cadell by whom sold late 1830s to
Benjamin Godfrey Windus of Tottenham (1840);
J E Fordham (1862) [?and by descent to]
F N Fordham of Royston (1902);
Untraced (1979)

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 indicated 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. The Fordham reference of 1862, indicates that this was not one of the subjects that passed to Munro.

Publications and Exhibitions:

Engraved by: W.Miller, 1833, as ‘Skiddaw’, the frontispiece for Volume 11, ‘Bridal of Triermain’ of Scott’s Poetical Works, 1834;
Armstrong 1902, p278 as “Skiddaw and Derwentwater”. Circa 1832. [F N Fordham, Esq., Royston.] 4 x 6. Calm lake, herd of cattle by shore. Mountain in morning light, light mist in wisps on hillside. Cirrus clouds. Engraved by W Miller, 1834, Scott’s “Bridal of Triermain;
Rawlinson, volume 2,1913, no.513;
Wilton 1979, No.1090 as ‘Skiddaw, c.1832, untraced’, not repr;
Finley, 1980, pp.91, 244 not repr;
Whittingham in Turner Studies 1987, 7 (2) 29-35;
David Hill, Turner in the North: A Tour through Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, the Scottish Borders, the Lake District, Lancashire and Lincolnshire in the Year 1797, New Haven and London 1996, pp.108, 201 note 20.
Thomas Ardill, ‘Skiddaw from the South of Derwentwater 1831 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2010, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012,, accessed 30 September 2020 [as untraced].
Turner in Tottenham website {accessed 9 September 2020]

DH 09 October 2020

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