Catching the Light: Turner’s Durham


The picturesque, medieval city of Durham, with its iconic Castle and Cathedral is a regular feature in tourist brochures. Sitting on top of its peninsular, encircled by the river, its two ancient monuments help to form an idyllic image, which is often overlooked by students as we start to take this landscape for granted. Many artists today are inspired by Durham’s views and, indeed, over the last few centuries, the city has featured in the portfolios of several prominent artists.

In 1791, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) visited Durham for the first time. He subsequently made several trips to the North including a tour of Northern England and Scotland in 1801 and a later trip to County Durham and Northumberland in 1817. These tours provided an opportunity to sketch and record images, which would later give inspiration for further works to be painted in his London studio.

An early painting, ‘Durham Cathedral’ (1798-99), now housed in the Royal Academy in London, shows the Cathedral and Framwellgate Bridge in sepia tones from a low viewpoint, looking up from the riverside. Another watercolour painting, entitled ‘Durham’ (1801), now on display at the Scottish National Gallery, depicts the cathedral from one of the hills that surrounds Durham in watercolour. This sketch painting acted as an initial study from which Turner went on to create several other images of the Cathedral including ‘Durham’ (1830-35), again in watercolour and now in the Scottish National Gallery. It shows a view from Prebends Bridge with more detail given to the cathedral and the corner parapet of the bridge visible in the foreground of the image, giving it a sense of scale.

As well as focusing on the landscape of Durham, Turner also painted views of the interior of the Cathedral, including ‘Durham Cathedral: The Interior, Looking East along the South Aisle’ (1797-98), in watercolour, graphite and gouache, providing a view of the cathedral pillars with shafts of light coming from the right hand side through the cathedral’s many windows. The painting is now part of the Tate collection where copies of his sketchbooks are also held. From these sketchbooks we are able to gain an insight into his tour of 1817 where he prepared works for two patrons, Lord Darlington and Lord Strathmore. Line drawings of familiar Durham landscapes can be seen, as well as preparations for his more famous landscape, ‘Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington’ (exhibited 1818), in oils, which is now to be found in The Walters Art Museum in America. This painting is particularly interesting as it is one of Turner’s first in which he focuses on the depiction of the sky, as well as the landscape, using variations colours and shapes to create a dramatic effect.

JMW Turner 'Raby Castle - the seat of the Earl of Darlington' Image via Wikimedia Commons
JMW Turner ‘Raby Castle – the seat of the Earl of Darlington’ Image via Wikimedia Commons

Turner’s visits to Durham inspired a host of other painters to depict Durham. Less well known but prolific artist, Albert Goodwin (1845-1943), painted the landscape in a similar style, as did William Miller (1796-1882)

Today Durham continues to provide inspiration for artists, both within the student community and members of the public. In looking back at these works by Turner and his contemporaries we are able to gain a fascinating insight into Durham in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Hopefully these paintings will allow you, as they have done me on my walks to and from lectures, to view these beautiful surroundings in a new light.


Image by student artist: Olivia Howcroft
Image by student artist:
Image by student artist Flora Stafford
Image by student artist Flora Stafford

Featured Image – Engraving of Durham by William Miller after Turner

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