Charles Turner (1773-1857) after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Norham Castle on the Tweed, London, 1 January 1816, mezzotint and etching

Turner's topographical watercolours

Sam Smiles shows how topography was central to JMW Turner's output, and how his career was arguably built on designing topographical views for print publication.

JMW Turner (1775–1851) is associated with the most far-reaching development of landscape painting in 19th-century British art and for that reason many would not choose to describe him as a topographical artist at all. Yet he devoted a large part of his career, from the 1790s until the 1830s, to the production of watercolours with topographical content and in so doing he demonstrated that topography could play a part in the broader development of landscape painting.

His contemporaries understood this. As watercolour began to establish itself as an important modern art form, it became routine to acknowledge Turner and Thomas Girtin (1775–1802) as pioneers of a new approach to topography. Speaking of their achievement, one admirer declared:

Hitherto, the topographical style of painting had been chiefly addressed to the antiquary, rather as a matter of curiosity than art. In this country, at least, architectural representations were viewed as subjects which did not afford sufficient scope for the display of much talent. Turner and Girtin, however, discerned in this pursuit, capacities which had escaped the most ingenious of their predecessors.[1]

After Girtin’s premature death, Turner was the pre-eminent watercolour painter in Britain and much of his output exploited the potential of topography in ways his predecessors had overlooked. His subjects were principally of well-known and recognisable places but their treatment was also designed to advance the cause of landscape art. In his hands the topographical image was transformed from a relatively unadventurous mode of representation into a much more creative site of experimentation.

The earliest works Turner showed at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions, where he first exhibited in 1790, were topographical views in watercolours. Early in that decade he began a sequence of summer sketching tours in Britain, which resulted in the production of numerous works of this sort for exhibition and private sale. Although Turner took advantage of the short-lived Peace of Amiens to travel to France and Switzerland in 1802, regular foreign tours were impossible until the wars with France ended in 1815. Turner first visited continental Europe again in 1817 and after that date made numerous sketching tours abroad, recording landscapes and sites of historic interest.

Westminster Bridge

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Westminster Bridge, published London, John Walker (active 1776-1802), 1797, etching and engraving

This view of Westminster Bridge was published in 1797, as an illustration for the Copperplate Magazine

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Many of Turner’s topographical watercolours were engraved, some 600 in all, in a variety of publications throughout his career. These engravings appeared at first in somewhat pedestrian publications, such as the Copper-Plate Magazine (1794–98) and similar topographical series, but as his reputation grew into the 1810s he was in a position to negotiate better terms with the publishers and to take a more active role in the publication.[2] He worked closely with his engravers in raising the standards of what could be achieved, relying on them to do justice to his increasingly sophisticated vision. 

By these means Turner brought English landscape engraving to a pre-eminent position in European art. Topographical publications also ensured that his art was seen by many more people, albeit at second-hand via engravings of it. In fact, this was how most people would have encountered these watercolours, for after 1806 Turner hardly ever showed works on paper at the Royal Academy exhibitions and the general public could only see them on those rare occasions when publishers or collectors put on special exhibitions of his drawings.

Interior of Salisbury Cathedral, looking towards the North Transept

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Interior of Salisbury Cathedral, Looking Towards the North Transept, 1801-5

From 1795, Sir Richard Colt Hoare employed JMW Turner to produce drawings of Salisbury Cathedral and its environs

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At the beginning of his career, Turner’s topographical work was typical of what his contemporaries were producing: recording the country’s notable landscapes and its architectural legacy. Commissions to depict the estates of the gentry and aristocracy began in 1795, when Viscount Malden asked him to make watercolours of his seats in Herefordshire and Hertfordshire, and the Wiltshire antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare inaugurated a 10-year project to make watercolours of Salisbury Cathedral and its surroundings. He was also employed by the Yorkshire landowner Edward Lascelles at Harewood House, in 1797, and by William Beckford who recruited him in 1799 to record Fonthill Abbey, his new house in Wiltshire which was then under construction. 

Commissions from other members of the aristocracy and gentry multiplied in the 1790s and early 1800s and much of Turner’s early topography recorded their estates and the surrounding countryside. His patron and friend Walter Fawkes, of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, was one of his most loyal supporters. He commissioned 13 views of his house and garden painted between 1815–20, and in 1817 he bought from Turner 51 watercolours of the Rhine, between Cologne and Mainz.


Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Oberlahnstein, 1817, watercolour and bodycolour on white paper prepared with grey wash, 19.8 x 31.6 cm

Turner visited Oberlahnstein during an 1817 tour of the Low Countries and Rhineland

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In 1799 Turner’s expertise in topography saw him land the prestigious commission to depict Oxford colleges for engraving as the headpieces of the annual Oxford Almanack published by Oxford University Press, a contract which he fulfilled until 1811.[3] 

A view of Worcester College

James Basire II (1769-1822) after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), A View of Worcester College, published in the Oxford Almanack, Oxford, 1804

Turner’s view of Worcester College was published as the lead image for the 1804 edition of the Oxford Almanack

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Usage terms Public Domain

This project indicates how Turner’s production of topographical watercolours began to supply commercial enterprises, in addition to the private patronage he was already receiving. Increasingly it was commercial contracts that dominated his production of watercolours. While some of this work was dutiful, rather than inspired - for example his contribution to the Reverend Thomas Dunham Whitaker’s History of the Parish of Whalley (1800–01) from the 1810s, Turner took the topographical tradition and reshaped it.[4] 

Whalley Abbey (nearer view)

James Basire after JMW Turner Whalley Abbey (Nearer View),   plate VIII   in Thomas Dunham Whitaker History of the Original Parish of Whalley and Honour of Clitheroe in the Counties of Lancaster and York, (Blackburn, 1801), engraving, 241 x 293mm, British Library, London.

In 1799 Turner made a brief tour of Lancashire to prepare illustrations for Whitaker's History of the Original Parish of Whalley

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In 1811 he was commissioned by George and William Bernard Cooke to make watercolours for engraving in the series Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (1814–26). The resulting work comprised 39 engravings, principally of West Country subjects, with which Turner articulated a new understanding of what topography might be. He worked with the specific features of a place, including details that alluded to historic and contemporary events, peopling it with a carefully observed selection of inhabitants, trades people and workers, and paying equal attention to modern buildings and ways of life. By these means his topography was less a picturesque entertainment devoted to the relics of antiquity and more an account of how contemporary life was lived in these locations.[5] 

Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall

William Bernard Cooke (1778-1855) after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall, published as plate 65 in Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England,  London, , 1816, etching and engraving, 22.5 x 30 cm,  189.e.2-3.

Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall was first published in 1816, as part of a major topographical print project directed by WB Cooke

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Turner was well aware that the production of watercolours for topographical publications was a risky activity for an ambitious artist. Determined to uphold the status of landscape painting Turner had to challenge the prejudice against topography as a merely imitative practice. For example, the History painter Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), in one of his lectures to students at the Royal Academy, used ‘topography’ and ‘map-work’ as equivalent epithets to describe unimaginative approaches to nature:

...the last branch of uninteresting subjects, that kind of landscape which is entirely occupied with the tame delineation of a given spot; an enumeration of hill and dale, clumps of trees, shrubs, water, meadows, cottages, and houses, what is commonly called Views. These ... may delight the owner of the acres they enclose, the inhabitants of the spot, perhaps the antiquary or the traveller, but to every other eye they are little more than topography. The landscape of Titian, of Mola, of Salvator, of the Poussins, Claude, Rubens, Elzheimer, Rembrandt and Wilson, spurns all relation with this kind of map-work.[6]

We know from one of Turner’s letters that he felt Fuseli’s comments were unjust. Writing to the antiquarian and topographer John Britton, who published a riposte to Fuseli in his book Fine Arts of the English School (1812), Turner clearly endorsed Britton’s first and more critical reply, which he had decided not to print:

I rather lament that the remark which you read to me ... is suppressed for it espoused the part of Elevated landscape against the aspersions of Map making criticism, but no doubt you are better acquainted with the nature of publication, and mine is a mistaken zeal.[7]

Norham Castle on the Tweed

Charles Turner (1773-1857) after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Norham Castle on the Tweed, London, 1 January 1816, mezzotint and etching

This plate is from JMW Turner’s Liber Studiorum, considered to be the artist’s most significant personal project

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In his own practice Turner demonstrated that topography could become a more imaginative art than its critics believed. For example, in his self-published Liber Studiorum (1807–19), which divided landscape types into categories, he used the same terminology for both invented compositions and actual landscapes. By doing so he was pointing out that high artistic value was not restricted to imagined subjects but could be conferred on apparently mundane locations as well. Topography, in other words, could escape ‘map-work’ if the artist represented a place sufficiently creatively. 

This is demonstrated further in the engraving of Norham Castle, where Turner designates it with the letter code ‘P’ for Pastoral. In depicting the scene as a pastoral landscape Turner asks the viewer to look beyond the literal identity of the castle and to find other qualities in the image. 

Likewise, in his mature topographical watercolours Turner chose to produce images that were aesthetically stimulating. The most obvious device was the use of weather conditions and seasonal changes to clothe these landscapes with highly varied atmospheric effects.  In addition he often took liberties with the actual appearance of the places he depicted. Separate views might be combined, heights exaggerated, distances collapsed and physical features manipulated. This was, of course, a radical departure from the idea that accurate recording lay at the heart of topography, but Turner’s approach manipulated the surface-features of a landscape to capture something of its essence. His watercolours were as much about the experience of a place as they were about its appearance.

It is not possible to list all of Turner’s topographical works, or the publications in which many of them appeared, but in addition to those already mentioned, the engravings in the following publications are widely considered to be representative of his topographical work:

  • Charles Heath Picturesque Views in England and Wales, (1827–38) 
  • Reverend Thomas Dunham Whitaker History of Richmondshire,(1819–23)  
  • Charles Heath and Leitch Ritchie Turner’s Annual Tour, (3 vols, 1833–35) 


[1] William Henry Pyne (ed.) The Somerset House Gazette, vol. 1, no. vii, 1823, p. 98.

[2] The original watercolour is in the collection of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

[3] The original watercolour is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

[4] The original watercolour is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. 

[5] The original watercolour is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. 

[6] Henry Fuseli, ‘Lecture IV – on Invention, Part II’ (1804), in John Knowles (ed.) The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli, ESq, M.A., R..A. (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831), vol. II, p. 217.

[7] Letter to John Britton from JMW Turner, November 1811, in John Gage (ed.) Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 50.

  • Sam Smiles
  • Sam Smiles is Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth. He has written extensively on British art c. 1750-1850, focusing particularly on the works of J.M.W. Turner. He has a special interest in the relationship between antiquarianism and the visual arts.