Abbeville: St Vulfran from the Market Square, c.1834

Watercolour vignette, 135 x 105 mm

Private Collection


This is a small, highly-wrought studio watercolour vignette, of a busy street scene with a cathedral in the background bathed in light, whilst a stage coach stops in the centre of a street amidst a throng of figures.

DH scan from Sotheby’s 1983

This is the last of forty watercolours engraved as frontispieces and title-pages for the 28 volume set of ‘The Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott’ issued by Robert Cadell of Edinburgh 1834-36. The present subject was engraved by J Horsburgh., dated 1836 and published as the title page to the final volume, no.28 ‘Tales of a Grandfather’.

The subject is the famous cathedral of St Vulfran at Abbeville as seen from the market place. Wilton 1979 cited a related drawing of the market-place at Abbeville, in the Rivers Meuse and Moselle sketchbook of 1824 (T.B. CCXVI-192v; Tate D19935). Turner made that and several other studies of Abbeville on a tour made to collect subjects for a projected series of Rivers of Europe that never came fully to fruition. The final two volumes of Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ examine the history of France.

Photograph taken by David Hill, 2012

The scene is generally recognisable today, but the town centre, famous in Turner’s day for its exceptionally picturesque timber-framed buildings, was entirely destroyed in a German bombing raid and fire-storm of 20 May 1940. At its close, the charred shell of St Wulfram stood in the middle of seventeen hectares of ruins and thirteen kilometres of vanished streets. The cathedral and town hall were rebuilt but the rest had to be developed anew.

No-one seems ever to have given the significance of this composition any consideration. It is something of a mystery, indeed, as to why Turner and Cadell chose it at all. It stands as the title-vignette to the second of two volumes devoted to the history of France. In the whole account, however, Abbeville is almost invisible. It is mentioned only twice (pp. 55, 58) as the overnight camp of King Philip’s army on the eve of the Battle of Cressy in 1346.

That was a century before St Vulfran was built, so that can hardly be the pretext here. Nor does Turner’s frontispiece in this volume, a view of the Chateau d’Arques near Dieppe, help in the search for a rationale. There is no mention whatsoever of that subject in the volume it serves, and in the whole ‘History of France’, just one brief mention of William d’Arques in the previous volume (27, p.120).

So what can have been Turner’s intention? By the time that he painted the present watercolour and its companion Turner had made several visits to France. It is perhaps significant that sketches for both of these subjects were made on the same tour of 1824. By then the traumas of the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1816 were sufficiently distanced for British visitors to France to have become numerous and mostly welcome. When Turner toured there in 1824 it would have seemed as if Europe offered a new world of expanded horizons in a variety of peacetime contexts; historical, cultural, social and commercial. Turner’s lifelong project was to operate within the imaginative dreamwork of changing times and relations.

So Turner’s subject in both these watercolours, and indeed in the French subjects in the companion volume, Calais and Rouen in volume 27, is the approach to France. All four subjects represent key landmarks for the British traveller landing in France. Abbeville was a principal stopping point for travellers coming from the northern ports; the Chateau d’Arques a major landmark for arrivals from Dieppe, Calais the principal port of entry from Dover, and Rouen, the principal town on the Seine en route to Paris from Dieppe or Le Havre.

Photograph by David Hill

Turner’s principal theme here is the excitement of stage-coach arrival or departure in an historic city. The constituents of society mingling in a dynamic human spectrum. The contrast of human achievement on a grandiose scale with that of Heath-Robinson picturesque. Turner was always especially alert to the variety of human condition. He cannot but have been aware as he descended from his coach to take refreshment at an inn, of pressing through a sea of need. There are beggars and peasants selling almost anything that would feed their families. Post revolutionary France distributed as little egalite as before. Turner obviously intended us to notice the lack as clearly as the supply, and for peacetime activity to bring amelioration.



H A J Munro of Novar, to
Christie’s 2 June 1877 (18), bt for 265 gns by
John Heugh to
Christie’s 2 June 1878, lot 155, bought for 170 gns by
C W Wheeley Lea (1902) and by descent to
Mrs Wheeley Lea, to
Christie’s 11 May 1917 (36), where bt for 210 gns by
C.P.Mason to
Sotheby’s 25 March 1975 (242), bt.
D Gowan to
Christie’s, New York, 7 January 1981, bt Agnew’s £7,818;
Spink, 1983;
Sotheby’s, London 17 November 1983, No. 167 as ‘Abbeville’ repr colour, est £12-18000;
Exh Agnew’s 1986 no.27 as ‘Abbeville’

References and Exhibitions

Engraved by J Horsburgh, dated 1836, as ‘Abbeville’, the title-page of The Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott, vol 28 ‘Tales of a Grandfather’.
Armstrong 1902 p.238 – Abbeville. Circa 1834 [C W Lea, Esq. Of Worcester, ex Novar Collection. Chr. 1877, Munro] Vignette Market-place, with diligence and peasant women. The nave of church rises beyond, with rainbow over roof. Engraved by J Horsburgh, 1836, Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather”.
Rawlinson volume 2, 1912, no.556;
Wilton 1979, No. 1133;
Turner Studies 1981, 1 (2) 55;
Turner Studies 1983, 3 (1) 61;
Turner Studies 1984, 3 (2) 60;
Exh Agnew’s 1986 no.27 as ‘Abbeville’;
Turner Studies 1986, 6 (1) 60, reporting appearance at Agnew’s, not repr.;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s