- Museum number
Gordale Scar, Yorkshire; view of rugged cliffs. 1877
Watercolour, touched with bodycolour
- Production date
Height: 247 millimetres
Width: 352 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Arthur Severn was married to Joan Agnew, a cousin of John Ruskin and long-time companion to Ruskin’s mother. When Ruskin moved to the Lake District the Severns accompanied him, acting as his carers in his old age. The influence of the great critic on Severn is palpable throughout his works. In 1875, Severn spent several days sketching in Yorkshire with Ruskin, who was ‘entirely taken aback by [Severn’s] rapidity and technical knowledge in these rock subjects’ (Birkenhead, p.251). Though we cannot know if the present drawing, one of two by the artist in the British Museum’s collections, was the result of this specific sketching trip, it was undoubtedly the result of his time spent in the North of England with Ruskin.
The subject, Gordale Scar, near Settle, Yorkshire, had long been viewed by British artists as a Sublime feature of the English landscape: a sight that would inspire awe, reverence, fear or other such heightened emotions in the beholder [see the comment on Thomas Girtin’s drawing of the Scar 1855,0214.19]. The effect of such places was analysed and described by Edward Burke in his 1757 treatise ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful’; these ideas and others similar had a profound effect on many currents of aesthetic production.
Gordale Scar had originally been made popular by Thomas Grey, whose 1769 account of his visit inspired others to follow in his path. He wrote of ‘one black and solid mass without any crevice in its surface [that] overshadows half the area below with its dreadful canopy’ [quoted in Thomas West, A Guide to the Lakes, (1778) 3rd edition, London 1784, p.218]. The enormous oil of the subject by James Ward in the Tate collection perfectly captures the dark and foreboding nature of the towering rocks described by West. Following in this long tradition, John William Inchbold had exhibited a large version of the subject at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1876, [now also in the Tate collection] accompanied by lines from Wordsworth’s 1818 poem of the same name ‘…when the air/Glimmers with fading light .../Then, pensive Votary!, let thy feet repair/To Gordale-chasm, terrific as the lair/where the young lions couch; ...’.
Severn would likely have seen this latest representation of Gordale’s ‘immensity and horror’, and was undoubtedly aware of the sight’s connotations and history; however, his own version moves away from the Sublime tradition. In this depiction the vastness of the rocks is tempered by Ruskinian attention to small detail, and Severn employs the bright colours and minimal shadow favoured by the Pre-Raphaelite school.
Sheila Birkenhead, Illustrious Friend, London, 1965.
Arthur Severn, The Professor, (James Dearden ed.), London, 1967.
The following label was written by Kim Sloan for Places of the Mind, 2017:
At the first Dudley Gallery exhibition in 1865 Severn’s ‘excellent’ works were singled out by reviewers for demonstrating his ‘imaginative faculty restrained by good taste, and directed by earnest study of nature’ and were said to display ‘a power of the rarest kind among English landscape painters’. In 1871 he married a cousin of Ruskin, and in 1872 accompanied Ruskin to Italy, sometimes working together with him in the same sketchbook. Like many others in this circle, his works employ bright colours and close attention to nature but his reputation later in life was eclipsed by caring for his wife’s increasingly frail relative.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1991 Jan-April, BM, Recent Acquisitions (no cat.)
1994-5 Sept-Jan, BM, Pre-Raphaelite Drawings, no.108
2017 23 Feb-27 Aug, London, BM, G90, Places of the Mind: British Landscape watercolours 1850-1950
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- Prints and Drawings
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