Recently I’ve been looking into the strange fate of Ewenny Priory at the time of its dissolution in the 1530s and 1540s. Sooner or later anyone interested in the history of the priory can hardly escape an encounter with the remarkable watercolour of the church’s interior that JMW Turner painted in 1797, when he was 22 years old.
It’s now in the collection of the National Museum of Wales. I first came across this work many years ago when I lived in Cardiff. It struck me as an enigmatic painting then, and it still does.
Turner exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy under the title Trancept of Ewenny Priory, Glamorganshire. It’s based on sketches he made while visiting Ewenny on his third tour of Wales in 1795. He clearly regarded it as one of his major early achievements. But anyone familiar with the priory, probably the best preserved Norman church interior in Wales, and expecting to see a topographically accurate account of the place, would have been disappointed.
First, in reality the interior space is narrow and confined. Turner has opened the space out, to make the church appear much broader and more impressive than it actually is. Second, the church’s usual light is cool and grey. Turner, however, floods the central rectangle of the picture with a strong lateral golden light, more associated with the Italian than the Welsh sun, in order to heighten the contrast with the darker areas in the foreground and at the side. Third, as Eric Shanes has pointed out, Turner has shifted the medieval chest tomb, the only monument visible in the painting, through 180 degrees, in order to give it prominence within the ‘golden rectangle’.
Out of his unexceptional sketches of the priory, some of which survive in the Tate Gallery, Turner engineered an elaborate and impressive composition. What was he up to?
When the painting appeared in an exhibition in Tate Britain in 2009 it was shown paired with an etching by Piranesi of Roman ruins. For Turner the ruined and abandoned monastery was the native equivalent of Piranesi’s lost splendour of ancient Rome. Ewenny offered a fine example of powerful Norman architecture still standing but no longer fulfilling its proper function. If its grandeur needed to be magnified by altering the priory’s dimensions and introducing artificial lighting, so much the better.
But Turner goes further than presenting a generalised image of faded glory. The human and animal details of his picture lend the picture a mordant edge. The transept has become a farmyard. A woman is feeding hens by the open door on the right. On the left a man lets a pig though a door in the rood screen. In the foreground are various abandoned objects of farm machinery: a wheelbarrow, an upturned harrow and a henhouse roof. The bare trusses on the henhouse roof strongly suggest the ribs of a human or animal skeleton.
In the midst of this scene, oblivious of the disorder and stench, a proud medieval ruler lies peacefully on his grand stone bed. It is unclear who this is. It may be Sir Payne de Turberville, a twelfth century Norman invader known ominously as ‘Y Cythraul’ (‘The Demon’). But there is no lack of unsavoury men buried in Ewenny. A surviving slab tomb commemorates Maurice de Londres, the son of the founder of the priory and an aggressive enforcer of Norman power in Wales (he is still remembered in Kidwelly for his defeat of the Welsh at the battle of Maes Gwenllian). The post-dissolution magnates, the Carne family, were known for their chicanery, litigiousness and occasional violence. But whoever the dead knight is is, for all his victories and hopes of eternal renown, he’s now reduced to sharing a dirty floor with chickens and pigs and the modern equivalents of the common people he no doubt despised during his life. Turner may well have been aware of the details of Ewenny’s history when he visited, and his juxtaposing of the splendid tomb with the farmyard may have been a deliberate and acid comment on the posthumous humbling of an oppressor.
(Eric Shanes suggests that Turner’s highlighting of the tomb had another purpose: to decry the destructive effects of the sixteenth century reformation on the glorious catholic past, represented by the medieval figure. But this requires us to see Turner as a closet Catholic, for which there is no evidence.)
Turner is hardly ever seen as a polemical artist, but it’s undeniable that, in his early period at least, he introduced political elements into his landscape paintings. A clear example is the oil painting of Dolbadarn Castle in the National Library of Wales, where, at the bottom of the picture, the tiny figure of Owain Goch, clad in red, is being escorted to his long imprisonment in the castle. Turner was well aware of the grim history of Dolbadarn – it was not simply a picturesque ruin in a mountainous setting – and it’s known that he had read Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Wales. His five tours of Wales were made when he was a young man, and they coincided with the revolution in France, when new political ideas were in the air. It would be unsurprising if Turner was untouched by calls for the equality of mankind and liberation from oppression.