It comes as no surprise that J.M.W. Turner was best known as a masterful painter following a close examination of his work. Turner’s mastery of light and line allows for transcendence from the average print experience. Working in monochrome is in no way a hindrance for Turner; he takes shades and makes the viewer question the possibility of accomplishing such an emotional invocation with a single color. No inch of the paper is left without intrigue, excruciating detail, and evidence of his devilish talent for blending naturalistic portrayals with the presence of the divine.
Kirkstall Abbey on the River Aire is an engraving drawn by J.M.W. Turner (though actually engraved by John Bromley) from the year 1826. It stands 7 ¾ x 10 inches, but impresses the grandeur of a much larger work. Like many of his other pieces, Kirkstall Abbey portrays a landscape splaying out beneath wide-open skies and spotted with forms both living and inanimate.
The composition is divided into three main portions, with the foreground occupying the bottom third, separated from the background and sky by a stream running through the center of the frame. Dark, contrasting trees obstruct this composition with their dominant verticality. Lying in the background, the decaying frame of a building is presumably Kirkstall Abbey. The ambient lighting from the sky casts a gradient downward, which splays across the structure. The gradient reveals highlights and lowlights that accentuate the edifice from the surrounding hills, bringing it closer to the viewer. In the foreground a farmwoman stands with her arms raised, her head bearing a load of sorts. She watches a small herd of cattle stare at their own reflection as they wade in the waters beneath her stony perch. Some of the cattle stand beneath a small outcropping of trees that seem to levitate in the breeze.
Turner’s use of foreshortening and perspective gives us more than just an idea of what he is representing in his work. His subject matter comes alive. The plasticity of cattle forms is revealed as Turner’s stippling hugs the bovine musculature, suggesting where folds of skin cling to rippling muscle. Comparatively, finer line work is used to delineate the far-off abbey skeleton. What was once a bell tower now stands awash in soft light, in contrast with the surrounding structure and hills, planting the building in its nook and creating a real space.
The overall mood established by the piece is that of serenity. The tranquil lighting spills out behind the abbey and is reflected in the water’s glassy surface, resembling polished granite. The gritty stone textures are offset by the cleanliness of white cows passively collected near them. The soft haze in the background blends the heavens and the earth, allowing the viewer to imagine what might extend beyond the horizon to join the two.