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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)

The Refectory at Kirkstall Abbey


Museum number: P312

Curatorial note

Turner visited the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey at Kirkstall in Yorkshire on his first tour to the north of England, in 1797, during which he covered more than a thousand miles and made nearly two hundred sketches. On his return, he used his sketches as the starting point for a group of nine works (some in watercolour, others in oils), including this one1, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798. The original sketch used as the basis for this watercolour is in the Tate Gallery [Kirkstall Abbey: The Dormitory Undercroft, with Cows, 1797, from Turner’s North of England Sketchbook (TB XXXIV 10 a), pencil and watercolour on paper]. David Hill has pointed out that Turner’s choice of this particular subject, a view of the Dormitory Undercroft at Kirkstall, for exhibition in 1798 was perhaps not surprising given the success he had achieved with a similar subject the previous year. The Transept of Ewenny Priory, Glamorganshire had been hailed by one critic, in the St. James’s Chronicle, as ‘one of the grandest drawings he had ever seen, and equal to the best pictures of Rembrandt’.2 Critics praised the 1798 exhibits also, the Monthly Magazine noting that whether in oil or watercolour Turner’s works were ‘equally sublime’.

Surprisingly, in view of this, The Refectory of Kirkstall Abbey remained unsold until 1804 when on 3 May Mrs. Soane’s Notebook records ‘Saw Turner’s Gallery bought a ‘View of Cormayare Val de Aosta Savoy’ [SM P108] …bought likewise ‘Interior of Kirkstall Abbey’ cost - ’. Soane’s Journal gives the total price paid for both watercolours and we can calculate from this that this picture cost £36 15s.

Mrs. Soane and her husband were busy throughout 1804 acquiring works of art for their new country house at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing. The small Drawing Room on the ground floor at Pitzhanger became in effect a Gallery where works by ‘modern masters’ – presumably including these two Turner watercolours - were displayed alongside Soane’s famous Hogarth paintings of A Rake’s Progress.

After Soane and his wife moved into 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1813 this watercolour hung in Mrs. Soane’s Morning Room on the second floor along with a large number of family portraits. It was clearly a favourite picture of hers and its hanging in this private apartment perhaps demonstrates that Turner was regarded as almost a member of the family.

Sadly, this work does not retain its original close frame: it was reframed in 1882 with a window-mount and a narrow frame (presumably the original bulky frame was disposed of to enable this picture to be hung within the planes in the Picture Room). As part of the restoration of the Morning Room in 2014-15 a new frame, replicating the original in so far as is possible from views and record drawings, was made by Joseph McCarthy Frames of Tunbridge Wells.

From 1807-1819 Turner produced a series of mezzotint engravings, the Liber Studiorum, as part of which this view, under the revised title ‘The Crypt. Kirkstall Abbey’, was published in February 1812.3 The inscription recorded proudly that the original watercolour was in the collection of ‘John Soane Esqr: RA Professor of Architecture’. Soane also permitted another old friend, the antiquarian John Britton to have the picture engraved by J. Scott for publication in his Architectural Antiquities, 1814.

1 Exhib: RA 1798, no. 346
David Hill ‘‘A Taste for the Arts’: Turner and the Patronage of Edward Lascelles of Harewood House (2)’ in Turner Studies, Summer 1985, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.30-46.
3 Gillian Forrester, Turner’s ‘Drawing Book’: The Liber Studiorum, Tate Publishing, 1996, pp.99-100.

[This entry is a revised version of the one written for the exhibition John Soane and JMW Turner: Illuminating a Friendship, Sir John Soane's Museum, 2007]

Exhibition history

Permanently Magical: Restoration and Renewal of Sir John Soane's Museum, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 2 July - 4 September 2010
Reisen mit William Turner. J. M. William Turner: Das Liber Studiorum, Galerie Stihl Waiblingen, 30 May - 7 September 2008
Soane and Turner: Illuminating a Friendship, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 26 January - 5 May 2007
The Liber Studiorum of J M W Turner, Städtische Galerie in der Reithalle, Paderborn, 28 April - 15 July 2012
Turner in the North, Tate Britain, London, October 1996 - February 1997; Harewood House, Leeds, March - June 1997

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk