Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851)
In 1824, Turner was commissioned to produce 120 designs for a series of topographical engravings, Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1827-1838). Such series were popular in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and they provided a steady source of income for Turner, whose watercolour designs were in great demand. (Another such design, The Crook of Lune, is also in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection).
Colchester, Essex is one of his most striking compositions for the project, and shows the artist grappling with the challenges of producing watercolours that could be successfully translated into black-and-white engravings. He developed a technique of layering careful finishes of stippling over colour washes, especially visible at the lower right edge, with some areas of wash carefully scraped away to serve as highlights. This allowed him to capture both fine detail and elusive atmospheric effects, such as the reflection of a sunbeam on the river at left and the smoke rising from the chimneys of the houses at right. The Victorian critic John Ruskin, a major promoter of Turner’s work, particularly admired Colchester and singled its technique out for praise: ‘The drawing of Colchester, in the England series, is an example of this delicacy and fullness of tint, together with which nothing but nature can be compared.’ (Works, vol. III, p. 298)
The narrative incident in the foreground, showing several figures and a dog chasing a fleeing hare, not only animates the scene but also alludes to a dark episode in Colchester’s history: Colchester Castle, partly obscured by trees on a hill in the middle ground, was the site of a series of infamous witch trials held during the Civil War (1644-45). According to rural tradition, witches could transform themselves into hares. The densely packed houses on the right, however, indicate that the watercolour’s primary subject is modern, rather than ancient, Colchester: the town was then undergoing rapid urbanisation, with new buildings steadily encroaching on the open countryside.
The engraving after the watercolour was executed by Robert Wallis in 1827; an impression is also held in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection. Turner made extensive annotations on a trial proof of the print (now in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) indicating the changes he wanted made, such as ‘burnish[ing] the sky round the sun’ and ‘Lines of the hills too much seen […] Try and blend them but not by a cross line’. Such instructions show the degree of control he exerted over Wallis and other engravers; he believed that prints after his work should be considered works of art in their own right, rather than mere reproductive images.