Watercolour by JMW Turner

An early watercolour by JMW Turner depicting the entrance to Bishop Vaughan’s Chapel in St David’s, Wales, £37,000 at Cheffins.

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The watercolour, offered at the March 20 sale, had been purchased for approximately £100 in the early 1990s as part of a group lot of pictures at a regional auction house in Suffolk. Having been in a private Suffolk country house ever since, its owner said: “We periodically discussed that the picture could be by Turner but did not take it any further.

“After a trip to Wales in the autumn of 2022 visiting St David’s Cathedral, our interest in our picture was rekindled. At this point, we turned to Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery website and discovered the Turner sketch relating to our watercolour. As we were aware of the recent sale of a Turner at Cheffins, we decided to contact them.”

The Cambridge firm had sold another early watercolour of Chepstow Castle overlooking the River Wye to the Chepstow Museum in March 2023 for a hammer price of £75,000.

The 12.75 x 9.75in (33 x 25cm) watercolour at the current sale depicted the entrance to Bishop Vaughan’s Chapel in St David’s, Wales, and is now believed to have been based on a sketch executed on the artist’s 1795 tour of Wales. Signed W Turner and inscribed in the artist’s hand to the reverse (stating the location), it was verified ahead of the auction by Andrew Wilton, a leading scholar on Turner and the first Curator of the Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection at Tate Britain.

The picture may well have made more were it not for a few condition issues. These included three small tears as well as creases to two of the corners and some discolouration and foxing to the sky. However it was arguably in better condition than the Chepstow watercolour, although the fact that it was significantly smaller (nearly half the size) and was an architectural rather than a topographical view accounted for the difference in hammer prices achieved.

Cheffins said the latest watercolour sold to a private collector. 

Architectural detail

The building depicted in the watercolour was built in 1509 for Bishop Edward Vaughan as his chantry chapel and burial place and was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the name under which it is now known. Turner depicted the intricate architectural detail with extraordinary accuracy, also recording the poor state of the building and the unroofed condition of the North Choir and Chapel Aisles as they were in 1795.

The watercolour epitomises Turner’s early architectural drawing and was almost certainly worked up from the preparatory sketch back in his London studio as a private commission for one of his patrons or friends.

Old Master drawing

Old Master drawing

A river landscape in pen, ink and pencil, £56,000 at Cheffins.

Another work on paper commanding significant attention at the Cambridge sale was a river landscape which was ‘attributed to’ Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi (1606-80). Showing tree stumps and buildings beyond, the pen, ink and pencil sketch measured 11 x 8.5in (28 x 22cm) and came to auction from a private collection of Old Master drawings.

Having been previously valued at a few thousand pounds by a London auction house and with a lack of provenance or any history, Cheffins decided to give it a cautious estimate of £300-500.

But with bidders spotting its underlying quality and believing it to be by a different hand, seemingly an earlier and perhaps Flemish rather than Italian artist, it was taken up to a final £56,000 and knocked down to a private collector. One trade source told ATG that they did in fact consider it to be Italian and said that its proximity to Titian may have explained the price, although they suspected it was more likely a 'Circle Of' rather than autograph work.