J.M.W. TURNER R.A.
BRIDGNORTH ON THE RIVER SEVERN
A.G. Turner; Hungerford Park, Hungerford, 12-14 June 1956
Letchworth Art Gallery, Watercolours from the Collection of Mr Peter Rhodes, 1960, no.16
Reading Museum and Art Gallery, English Drawings and Watercolours from the Collection of Mr PeterRhodes, 1961, no.17
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W.Turner, 1979, p.311, no.90
Like a number of fellow artists during the 1790s – a period when travel on the Continent was virtually impossible owing to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – Turner spent much of his early career travelling around Britain in search of suitable subjects that could be worked up into finished watercolours, or engravings to illustrate various antiquarian, topographical and picturesque publications. It was on the basis of such comparatively mundane work that the prolific and highly talented young artist established his reputation and began to attract commissions from private patrons. In November 1798 he was able to report to the diarist Joseph Farington that he had ‘more commissions at present than He could execute & got more money than He expended’.
This is a view of Bridgnorth on the River Severn, Shropshire, downstream from Shrewsbury. In the centre of the composition is the new church of St Mary Magdalen, completed in 1794, the year that Turner visited the town, to the designs of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), the pioneering engineer. Turner’s visit was made en route to Wales, continuing on to Llangollen, Chester and Flint; two drawings of the bridge and gatehouse at Bridgnorth are in the Matlock sketchbook (Turner Bequest, Tate Britain), the second of which was used as the basis for an engraving published in the Copper-plate Magazine (for which Turner regularly worked), 1 August 1795. The picturesque mediaeval bridge and its gatehouse were drawn by several of Turner’s contemporaries, including Cotman and Girtin. However, the present watercolour is a completely different composition, and was derived not from a drawing by Turner himself, but from a small watercolour on card attributed to Thomas Girtin (now in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino), originally in the collection of their mutual patron, the physician Dr Monro; the group to which this card originally belonged is now mostly in the Turner Bequest. During the 1790s, both Girtin and Turner evolved their early drawing styles at Dr Monro’s ‘Academy’, and it can be difficult to distinguish their individual hands at this date.
Whether or not this watercolour was based on a study by Turner, or by the equally precocious Girtin, its style, handling and bold composition suggests that it dates from around 1798, a time when his mastery of watercolour was rapidly evolving. The large size suggests that it could have been a work commissioned by a particular patron, or have been intended for exhibition.