17th October 2018

As a legacy of the Turner Bequest in 1856, the Tate became home to a vast collection of sketchbooks that belonged to the artist J. M. W. Turner. These private notebooks offer a unique insight into the artist’s mind, revealing exciting aspects of his artistic process.

The Abbotsford Trust is fortunate to be able to feature the very sketchbook that Turner brought with him on his week-long visit to Sir Walter Scott’s home in our current exhibition: Turner & Scott: The Painter and the Poet. It is believed to be the very first time that the sketchbook has returned to Scotland since 1831.

In 1831 Scott and his publisher Robert Cadell managed to persuade Turner to travel to Scotland. Cadell had approached Turner to provide frontispiece and vignette illustrations for Scott’s Poetical Works and both Scott and Cadell thought that it was necessary for Turner to see the sites that inspired the poetry first-hand. The Abbotsford sketchbook serves as a document of the visit, revealing the interiors of Scott’s home alongside sketches of Borders landscapes and landmarks that include Smailholm Tower, Jedburgh Abbey, Berwick-on-Tweed and Melrose Abbey.

Melrose from across the Tweed, The Abbotsford Sketchboook, JMW Turner, ©Tate, London 2017

As the Collections and Engagement Assistant at Abbotsford, it is my role to support the Collections and Interpretation Manager in her work. During the preparations for this exhibition, I liaised with the Tate and our art transportation agency to arrange the arrival and installation of the items on loan that feature in our exhibition, including Turner’s paint box, travelling cabinet and watercolour palette.

The Tate sent one of their conservators to courier the works from London all the way to Abbotsford in the Scottish Borders (this is common practice with loans between museums and galleries). As the only person authorised to handle the objects, the conservator then unpacked the objects, carefully setting Turner’s paint box up with its contents just as it was found in his studio at the time of his death.

It was a privilege to be able to oversee this process, watching as the objects were unpacked from their boxes which were fitted with custom made padding to exactly fit their individual proportions. We were then able to advise the conservator as to how we wanted the display to look and to place the items from the Abbotsford Collection that feature in the exhibition alongside the new arrivals.

The final cabinet display with the sketchbook at the front

When it came to the Abbotsford sketchbook, we had to choose exactly which page we wanted to have the book open at for the entire exhibition. As the sketchbook includes many wonderful drawings, this was very difficult! It was decided that the pages on show in the exhibition should ideally showcase an external and internal view and we settled on the view of Scott’s home from the haugh or river meadow, and an internal sketch depicting the main entrance hall.

For visitors to Abbotsford today these drawings offer a tantalising comparison to the modern day. Other drawings from the book are available to flick through on a screen in the exhibition, which cleverly combines Turner’s drawings with contemporary images of the rooms that they represent.

Abbotsford from the South Court and The Entrance Hall at Abbotsford, The Abbotsford Sketchbook, JMW Turner, ©Tate, London 2017

At a glance, many visitors will probably note the abstract quality of many of the drawings. Far away from the finished image, they are a snapshot of what Turner saw, and it is possible to imagine the artist hurrying to jot down the many details of Scott’s home and the landscapes he enjoyed. Some of this remains in the finished watercolours, also on display in the exhibition, but the sense of spontaneity and energy is best preserved in the sketchbook.

This sketchbook reveals how Turner saw a space. How he broke it up into lines, shapes and patterns. Closer inspection reveals the detail and complexity of the sketches - which is astonishing - as Turner picks out individual suits of armour, coats of arms and intricate architectural details.

The Abbotsford sketchbook is an intimate fly on the wall account of Scott showing Turner around his Borders home.

Come and have a look for yourself! Turner & Scott: The Painter and the Poet is on display in the historic house at Abbotsford until November 30th 2018.

Eve Morley

Collections and Engagement Assistant

The Trust is grateful to the Tate for lending this and other objects that Turner used to create his world-renowned works of art. You can explore more of Turner’s sketchbooks on the Tate website.