Joseph Mallord William TURNER

(London 1775 - London 1851)

The Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Watercolour on wove paper.
301 x 464 mm. (11 7/8 x 18 1/4 in.)
In the summer of 1830, while on a tour of the Midlands to collect material for his illustrations for Charles Heath’s publication Picturesque Views in England and Wales, on which J. M. W. Turner worked between 1826 and 1838, the artist visited Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. In his ‘Kenilworth Sketchbook’, now part of the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain, he recorded in pencil studies the architecture of the Palace, built to the designs of Sir John Vanbrugh between 1705 and 1722, as well as the surrounding park and gardens later designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Upon his return to London, Turner began to consider possible compositions for a large watercolour of Blenheim and its surroundings, which eventually resulted in the finished watercolour of Blenheim Palace and Park, Oxfordshire, painted in the late autumn and winter of 1830-1831 and today in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The same view also appears, engraved by William Radclyffe, in Picturesque Views in England and Wales, published in 1833.

The 18th century Grand Bridge at Blenheim, built by Vanbrugh in 1708, was more than 120 metres in length and some fifteen metres tall, with a central arch that was thirty metres wide. When Capability Brown transformed Blenheim’s grounds in the 1760s, he built two dams and a huge lake, which flooded the lower half of Vanbrugh’s bridge.

The present sheet may be grouped with a large number of rapidly drawn watercolours by Turner that have been defined, by Alexander Finberg in his 1909 inventory of the Turner Bequest at the Tate, as ‘Colour Beginnings’. Finberg was referring to a miscellaneous group of 386 watercolours in the Turner Bequest - including numerous colour sketches, as well as preparatory studies, test sheets, and finished and unfinished watercolours - spanning a period of more than thirty years of the artist’s career. 

This large watercolour depicts Blenheim Palace and its grounds from the Woodstock Gate, the main entrance to the park. Two other ‘colour beginnings’ of Blenheim, both in the Turner Bequest at the Tate, depict the house and its grounds. One of these is quite close in composition to both the finished watercolour and the present sheet, while the other sketch shows the park at Blenheim from a different viewpoint, looking southeast, across the lake. Both works share with the present sheet a great sense of freedom and a summery palette.

A recent owner of the present sheet was the Conservative politician Philip Cunliffe-Lister, 1st Earl of Swinton (1884-1972), who was a prominent figure in British politics and a government minister from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Born in Covent Garden in London, the son of a barber, J. M. W. Turner had little formal education. He entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of fourteen, and exhibited his first watercolour at the RA soon afterwards, in 1790. Around 1794, along with Thomas Girtin, he began to visit the home of Dr. Thomas Monro and attend the informal academy there, copying drawings from Monro’s collection, notably works by John Robert Cozens. Turner was an inveterate traveler, visiting much of Britain in his youth and in later years making several trips to the Continent, notably to France, Italy and Switzerland. On his travels, he filled numerous small sketchbooks with rapidly-drawn pencil sketches. Possessed of an exceptional visual memory, the artist was able to translate these sketchbook studies into finished watercolours or oil paintings, sometimes many months or even years afterwards. By the 1830s Turner’s technical skill and bold sense of colour allowed him to achieve remarkable effects in his watercolours, and his late works in the medium, as well as his oil paintings, found a passionate champion in John Ruskin in his seminal five-volume book Modern Painters, published between 1843 and 1860. Turner produced some eight hundred designs for engravings, which, combined with a steady stream of patrons and clients for his works in watercolour and oil, earned the artist a substantial income. In later left he became something of a recluse, and had few close friends. The artist died of cholera at his home in Chelsea in December 1851, and the contents of his studio – around three hundred paintings and over 19,000 drawings and watercolours – were eventually acquired for the nation.


David Croal Thomson, London
Possibly Percy Moore Turner, London and Paris
Sir William Arthur Colgate, London and Bembridge, Isle of Wight
Spink & Son Ltd., London (as The Dark Bridge)
Philip Cunliffe-Lister, 1st Earl of Swinton, London and Swinton Park, North Yorkshire
Thence by descent.


Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J. M. W. Turner, Fribourg and London, 1979, p.380, no.694 (as ‘A bridge between trees (the Dark Bridge)', where dated c.1820).

Joseph Mallord William TURNER

The Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire