Rediscovering Kilnsey

Readers might have wondered at the recent inactivity of Old friends will know such lapses are not infrequent. But I have not been idle. In fact I have been rummaging in a box of transparencies dating back to 1983, and encountering my former self.

The occasion of all this was a Turner watercolour that I came across on the splendid website of Andrew Clayton Payne. This appears under the title of ‘Bridge in a Mist’, but I recognised it as Kilnsey Crag and Conistone Bridge in Upper Wharfedale, Yorkshire.

J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851 Kilnsey Crag and Conistone Bridge, Upper Wharfedale, Yorkshire, c.1825 Watercolour, 11 3/4 x 18 1/2 ins Private Collection Image courtesy of Andrew Clayton Payne

Kilnsey Crag and Conistone Bridge Photograph taken by David Hill, March 1983

I photographed the subject when exploring In Turner’s Footsteps for the book published in 1984.

The book is a reconstruction of Turner’s tour of Yorkshire and the North of England in 1816.

Turner had been commissioned to make a series of two hundred watercolours for a massive multi-volume ‘General History of the County of York’ by Thomas Dunham Whitaker. He set out from Farnley Hall near Otley on 17 July and returned there on 11 August having completed a circuit of more than 500 miles through the Yorkshire dales as far north as High Force, then across to the southern Lake District, and then back across Morecambe Bay to Settle and Skipton. He made about five hundred sketches en route, and I made it my business to reconstruct the tour as thoroughly as I could.

Kilnsey Crag and Conistone Bridge
Photograph taken by David Hill, March 1983

This involved excursions from Leeds over several years to identify and photograph subjects. One problem was the growth of trees, so quite a lot of these excursions had to be made in the winter when the branches were bare. These photographs were taken in March. The first buds are appearing on the branches and there is a dusting of overnight snow on the distant fells.

In Turner’s Footsteps tour, July 1983

Then in the summer of 1983 I re-enacted the tour as much as possible on the same days as had Turner. Our circumstances were a little different. He travelled on horseback and stayed at coaching inns. I drove a white Renault 5 and slept in a green tent. He travelled in the wettest summer on meteorological record, I enjoyed almost uninterrupted warmth, and my memory is of never being dressed in much more than a tee shirt and some old cord walking trousers. I spent a goodly amount of the time waiting for the light to come right and filled it swimming in the rivers, streams and waterfall pools that he had drawn.

J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851)
Kilnsey Crag and Conistone Bridge, 1816
Tate, TB CXLVIII 19a-20, Tate D11555-D11556. Image courtesy of Tate.

By the calculation of ‘In Turner’s Footsteps’ the artist visited Kilnsey on Friday 26 July 1816. He had spent Wednesday at Malham, and Gordale and on Thursday rode over to Wharfedale and put up at Kettlewell. He must have spent a few hours at Kilnsey and Kettlewell, for he made several exploratory sketches, before settling down to sketch this view in detail in the largest of the sketchbooks that he carried with him.

Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale 1816 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Afterwards I wrote up an account of the visit as best I could. Turner rehearsed a finished watercolour of the subject in a colour-beginning at the Tate, and although the History of Yorkshire project was curtailed, he seems to have obtained a commission for a finished watercolour of the subject, for the sketch is inscribed ‘C Cope | 29 Park Square | by the 31st of Decr’. A similar inscription on another page of the same sketchbook (Turner Bequest CXLVIII 25; D11564;) adds the date 1825. Charles Cope was a Leeds-based artist and engraver, and it may be that he thought to engrave the subject himself.

At the time of writing I had absolutely no idea of the existence of the present watercolour. It had eluded capture in Andrew Wilton’s catalogue of Turner’s watercolours in 1979, even though it was once owned by the major Turner scholar A.J.Finberg, who was responsible for the first catalogue of the Turner Bequest published in 1909, and for the still-foundational ‘Life of Turner’ published in 1939.

Reference to the watercolour exhibited in November 1983. Turner Studies 4.1, p.62.

It’s slightly galling to realise that when working on In Turner’s Footsteps I missed the present watercolour by a whisker. Looking through my records on the Turner database that I have been keeping, I found that it surfaced briefly in 1983, the very year in which I was writing the book, when exhibited by Agnew’s in Japan under the title of ‘White Bridge: Colour-beginning’. It was noticed, but sadly not reproduced in the major journal of that time, Turner Studies. Thinking back, I must have visited  Agnew’s a couple of times during 1983, but didn’t see it there.

After that it remained out of sight until its recent publication and sale by the British watercolours specialist Andrew Clayton Payne under the title of ‘A Bridge in the Mist’.

Comparing it to the Tate colour-beginning, It seems apparent that it is must be a few years later than that. The Turner Bequest example is cooler in colour, and less ethereal in handling, and was possibly made about 1820 when it still seemed likely that the full commission would be realised. As fate would have it, the author Thomas Dunham Whitaker died in 1821 and the project was curtailed with only twenty engravings finished. These were published together as the solely completed part, An History of Richmondshire. The present example is lighter in tone and brighter in hue, and seems to fit well with the 1825 commission recorded by Charles Cope. It is not impossible that a finished watercolour did materialise, but none such has ever been recorded.

It’s quite thought-provoking to be suddenly pitched back thirty-seven years. So much has changed. I was only one year into my first proper job, lecturing at Bretton Hall College. That was my first proper car. The first one didn’t have any floor pans, so you could see the road go by underneath. There’s about twice as much of me now as there was then. The only thing that’s not much different is the big hair. Lockdown can be thanked for some things.

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