19th Century European Paintings Gallery Level 2, NGV International
This picture is the first painting in oils sold by JMW Turner from the walls of the Royal Academy. Turner first sketched Dunstanburgh Castle during a tour of the north of England in 1797. The dramatic fourteenth-century ruin high on the cliffs of the Northumbrian coast became a favourite subject. A number of charcoal drawings of the ruin, seen from various aspects, appear in Turner’s ‘North of England’ sketchbook (Tate Britain, London), and the castle was also the subject for a series of tone and colour studies, several watercolours and two oil paintings. It is hardly surprising that the young Turner, with a growing interest in the classics and in history painting, found this theatrical and poignant scene so alluring. This painting is an early working of what was to become Turner’s grand theme: man’s heroic fragility in the face of the powers of nature. By depicting the castle as an ‘heroic’ presence above dark, soaring cliffs and a violent ocean, Turner invokes a sense of the Sublime, an aesthetic popularised in the eighteenth century by the British statesman and writer Edmund Burke (1729–1797).
X-radiography taken prior to recent cleaning reveals a building in the centre left of the composition painted out by the artist, and alterations to the headland and horizon.
Foord & Dickinson London
The frame is made almost entirely of timber, though it is not carved from a solid section. It is composed of finely-carved lengths of running ornament assembled onto a basic profile. The separate parts of the construction are not easily identified; the intention is that the construction be read as a whole. The basic profile and each of the applied ornamental sections are mitred at the corners. The strap work at the centres and corners of the leading edge is composition. The structure is re-enforced on the reverse. The surface is gilded throughout with gold leaf, presenting a highly finished, satin sheen.
Good original condition, though in parts the gilding has been worn and restoration of the surface has taken place.
Though the label is now lost, it positively identified the maker of the frame. The painting is one of the first works dated before 1800 to enter the collection and thus has a particular value as a reference point for painters in Melbourne. The frame and the painting were separated in the mid-twentieth century but brought together again in 1992.1 The painting entered the collection with this frame. It is assembled from carved timber sections and is a remarkable example of a high level of craftsmanship in frame construction. It is unlikely to be the first framing of the painting and could date to any of the changes of ownership between 1858 and the time the painting was acquired.2 The company began as George Foord, was later E. M. Foord, then Foord and Dickinson in 1859, trading under this name until 1899.3
1 The existence of the frame was brought to our attention by Jennifer Phipps, who had noted its presence in the storeroom of the State Library of Victoria. The painting had been re-framed in a swept edge Louis XV revival frame.
2 The painting had five owners between 1857 and 1884. (Ursula Hoff, European Painters before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria, NGV, 1995, p. 298)
3 See Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1996, p. 134. The company was favoured by Ruskin for framing Turner drawings in the National Gallery (London) in the 1850s. The progression of the company is also noted. See also: Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts, ‘Picture Framing: Notes on Turners Picture Frames’ in Museum Management and Curatorship, vol. 17, no. 3, September 1998 (published 2000).