Revealed: JMW Turner’s masterclass in Yorkshire

Bolton Abbey, on the Turner trail. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Bolton Abbey, on the Turner trail. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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He is the quintessential English watercolourist, a painter whose eye for light and colour immortalised the pre-industrial landscape.

But the Yorkshire journey that awoke JMW Turner’s senses to nature is a story seldom told.

Turner's 'Rivers of England' Watercolours, Norham Castle, on the River Tweed. Picture: Tate Images

Turner's 'Rivers of England' Watercolours, Norham Castle, on the River Tweed. Picture: Tate Images

The sketches and paintings he produced as he made his way from Pontefract to the Dales, tell of his transition from clinical, architectural draughtsman to cherished artist.

For three months next year, they will come home.

A deal announced by the charities Art Fund and the Garfield Weston Foundation, will see around 30 of Turner’s earliest landscapes, from the closing years of the 18th century, taken out of private storage at the Tate in London and put on display at a small gallery in Harrogate.

Turner had been invited North by the Lascelles family to paint their Palladian-style country house at Harewood, north of Leeds. But the landscape that played out before him as he roamed the county stirred a different sensibility.

“This tour opened up his career as a landscape painter,” said David Hill, a Turner expert, author and emeritus professor at Leeds University.

“He was known as an architectural draftsman of abbeys and castles when he set out from London.

“But after his exposure to the North of England, he returned to his studio the great poet of the landscape sublime that we know him to be today.”

The works that will be on loan to Harrogate’s Mercer Gallery from next January predate by some 20 years Turner’s celebrated Yorkshire Sketchbooks, which he produced on other visits to the county.

Mostly watercolours on paper, they include some that have not been seen publicly since the mid-1990s.

“The core of the works from the Tate are colour studies,” Prof Hill said.

“He’s working out his subjects in terms of light, atmosphere weather and colour, thinking of them in natural terms. That’s what he learned in the North.”

The exhibition, which will also be seen with different content in Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed, will chart Turner’s progress from Pontefract to Kirkstall Abbey and then north to Knaresborough, Ripon, Fountains Abbey, Richmond and eventually, Teesdale.

“These works only ever come out for special exhibitions,” Prof Hill said.

The Mercer Gallery is the beneficiary of a nationwide programme designed to share art from the national collections with the provinces.

Its curator, May Catt, said she was “thrilled” to be able to show it. “It will be very exciting for us,” she said.

“It’s the Yorkshire aspect that’s going to be of particular interest – it was done at a time in Turner’s career when his work really changed, and it was as a result of what he saw in the landscape.

“That’s what the exhibition will trace.”