Magdalen is one of the oldest of Oxford’s colleges. It was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete (c.1400-1486), Bishop of Winchester. The college is set within extensive acres of woodland and riverside walks. The Great Tower, which was reputedly described by James I as ‘the most absolute tower in England’, is 144 feet high and dominates the eastern entrance to the city.
Magdalen was one of the first colleges in Oxford to teach science. It is renowned for its ancient choral tradition and for its many notable alumni including the 19th-century aesthete and writer Oscar Wilde and Lord Denning, one of the most respected High Court judges of the 20th century.
Although best-known as a watercolourist, the artist of this work, William Turner of Oxford, also produced work in oils, like this example. Watercolour views of Magdalen College by Turner were sold through Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London in 1989, 2006 and 2008. However, none of his watercolour views of the college clearly relate to the composition of this painting.
William Turner’s father died when he was an infant and in 1803 he went to live with a wealthy uncle at Shipton-on-Cherwell, Woodstock. He studied drawing under William Delamotte, before becoming a pupil of John Varley in London. Aged 18, he was elected the youngest ever member of the Royal Watercolour Society. In 1812, he returned to Oxford and began teaching. He travelled extensively to the Lake District, Wales, the Peak District, Clifton Gorge and the Wye, later exploring the New Forest and the South Downs. In 1838, he made his longest sketching tour through Scotland. His reputation was as a provincial painter. However, he was praised by Ruskin for his ‘quiet, simple earnestness, and tender feeling’. He died in Oxford at the age of 72.
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