This article discusses a French subject painted by Turner in connection with ‘The Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott‘. Following previous articles on Calais and Abbeville, it is the third of four compositions to illustrate Scott’s two-volume History of France. It becomes apparent that the subjects variously explore the idea of arrival in France and celebrate re-emerging possibilities in the years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It seems an opportune moment to enjoy the idea of Europe sloughing off the malevolent power of a lunatic autocrat.
This is a small, highly-wrought studio watercolour of a landscape scene with a large hilltop castle in the centre mid-distance, bathed in evening light. Below left is a village with a church spire and in the foreground figures gather corn into stooks. The moon rises in the left distance.
This is the penultimate 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 W Forrest, dated 1836 and published as the frontispiece to the final volume, no.28 ‘Tales of a Grandfather’, opposite the title-page vignette of Abbeville. The final two volumes of Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ examine the history of France.
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Arques la Bataille lies a few miles inland of the port of Dieppe The subject is the Norman castle as seen from the west.
The exact view is difficult to obtain today due to the growth of trees, but Wikipedia has a photograph from the 1890s which records almost exactly the same view.
The watercolour is based on a sketch that Turner made in his 1824 ‘Rivers Meuse and Moselle’ sketchbook (Tate D20027: Turner Bequest CCXVI 242a). This and several other sketches of the Chateau d’Arques are catalogued by Alice Rylance-Watson for the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest at the Tate. They were made on a tour to collect subjects for a projected series of Rivers of Europe that never came fully to fruition.
Although Rylance-Watson connects the sketchbook page with the watercolour, the specific source is not noted. The main sketch on Tate D20027: Turner Bequest CCXVI 242a records the principal subject, but the composition of the watercolour is contained in a thumbnail study – the left hand drawing of two – at the foot of the page, which brings in the church at the bottom left, the off-centre tree and also an indication of the rising moon.
The latter is perhaps uncertain. There is a circular mark in the right place, but that might be part of a tree, or even belong to the main sketch above. We can, however say with certainty that the effect is plausible. In the summer months a full moon does indeed rise in this part of the sky.
Turner also rehearsed a similar view, but a very different effect in a watercolour at Brighton Art Gallery and Museums. This was reproduced in colour by Ian Warrell in his Turner on the Loire (Tate 1997-8) p.164 (cat.36).
This perhaps relates more closely to the main sketch above, rather than the thumbnail, and in any case depicts an effect of brighter daylight, with a passing cloud darkening the castle tower. As Warrell and Andrew Wilton in his 1979 catalogue of Turner’s watercolours (where no.1147) agree, the watercolour must in some way be antecedent to the Scott illustration, but even so Turner completely rethought the composition and the effect for his later watercolour.
In 1824 Turner thoroughly circumperambulated the site, and also made a watercolour beginning of the view from the eastern side (Tate D20211: Turner Bequest CCXX E).
Turner returned to the site in 1845 with the ‘Dieppe and Kent’ sketchbook (see Tate D35538: Turner Bequest CCCLXI 29a). The Turner Bequest also has a watercolour study of a very similar view and effect (Tate D35854: Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 17) which Matthew Imms has related to the 1845 visit.
The watercolour has every appearance of having been painted from nature. If so, Turner was returning to the subject to experience in nature an effect he had realised a decade earlier, and to seek out his own footsteps now two decades old. He does not, however, appear to have timed that visit to coincide with a rising full moon.
No-one seems ever to have given the significance of this composition any extended consideration. It is something of a mystery, indeed, as to why Turner and Cadell chose it at all. It stands as the frontispiece to the second of two volumes devoted to the history of France, but there is no mention whatsoever of the 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).
The castle was built by William of Talou in the early eleventh century and almost immediately besieged and captured by William the Conqueror. It was the site of fairly regular bloodshed, culminating, but hardly ceasing, in the battle of Arques in 1589 when Henry IV repulsed a siege by the Duke of Mayenne and 30,000 soldiers.
So what can have been Turner’s rationale? By the time that he painted the present watercolour and its companion in the same volume of Abbeville 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 1815 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 this and Abbeville, 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.
Turner’s principal theme here is pastoral serenity. In many ways it has the visionary qualities of a Samuel Palmer. Its serenity is the exact opposite to the madness and mayhem that had periodically swirled around this place, and engulfed most of Europe during Turner’s lifetime. In contrast his intention here is to celebrate and reify the Continent’s return to peace. Arques is an idyll where ordinary folk can attend to their work without threat or imposition and retire to their homes in the gloaming, assured of undisturbed rest.
He would have been disappointed with subsequent history. In 1889 Arques decided to formally incorporate ‘La Bataille’ in its name in memory of the events of 1589. Near the town is a cemetery containing the graves of nearly 400 British Empire servicemen – mostly South African – killed in the area in the First World War. During the Second World War the castle was used by as a command post and ammunition store, and was blown up during the 1944 allied invasion. And today he would once again have looked to Europe and seen it in thrall to a stumpy megalomaniac.
Sublimesites.co has visited the Chateau d’Arques before, in the company of John Sell Cotman. See here.