When Sir Walter Scott and JMW Turner spread the word about Teesdale, others followed. DAVID WHETSTONE reports on a new exhibition celebrating their work
AN epic poem which put Teesdale on the tourism map two centuries ago lies at the heart of a new exhibition featuring paintings and sketchbooks by JMW Turner and other famous British artists.
Rokeby: Poetry and Landscape marks the 200th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Rokeby.
Published in 1813, it was inspired by the landscape around Rokeby Park, the country estate of Scott’s friend John Morritt.
The estate is close to the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, where this exhibition celebrates Scott’s spine-tingling poetic tale of star-crossed lovers, ghosts and treasure set against the backdrop of the English Civil War.
Emma House, keeper of fine art at the Bowes, says the exhibition was suggested by Michael Rudd who lives in Darlington and wrote a book called The Heart of Teesdale.
“He’s been doing a lot of historical research into all aspects of Teesdale but one which particularly interested him was the involvement of Scott and Turner,” says Emma.
“Because the 200th anniversary of Rokeby was coming up, we all agreed an exhibition would be timely.
“We’ve worked on exhibitions before with Michael, who is really interested in artists who have visited the area.”
The exhibition features about 35 paintings, including several by Turner who illustrated some editions of Rokeby at the request of the publisher who said his contribution would ensure a total sale of 8,000 rather than 3,000 copies.
Turner later returned to paint other views mentioned in Scott’s poem.
Emma says Scott wrote Rokeby to generate income to pay off debts associated with his home, Abbotsford, in the Scottish Borders.
He set his poem in and around Rokeby Park having been inspired by the dramatic scenery.
At the heart of the action in Rokeby lies Oswald Wycliffe, a Roundhead officer in the English Civil War who plans to murder a former accomplice, Philip Mortham, who has returned home from a life of piracy in the Caribbean.
An assassination attempt goes wrong, as does an attack on Rokeby Castle which sets it ablaze.
Although it was pure fiction, the poem bestowed an appealing mythology on the estate and the surrounding area which aroused the curiosity of 19th Century readers and artists.
The former, rather like those who visit film locations today, were curious to see the places described in the poem. The development of the railways enabled them to do so in increasing numbers.
The artists, following a trail blazed by Turner, were inspired by Scott’s powerful descriptions of the landscape of Teesdale.
As well as the paintings and sketchbooks on show, there are early tourist guides and souvenir photographs of local scenes by Elijah Yeoman who had a studio in Barnard Castle in the early 1900s.
Emma says not far from the Bowes Museum is a cave beside the River Greta where Scott would sit and find inspiration for his writing.
The cave is on private land but can be seen from across the river when Rokeby Park is open to the public in the summer months.
Rokeby was popular with the public, selling some 10,000 copies in the first three months. But it was not quite as popular as Scott had hoped it would be and it was eclipsed by Lord Byron’s recent poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
It was at this point, we learn, that Scott turned his hand to writing the novels - including Ivanhoe and the Waverley series - which would ensure his lasting fame.
Emma says paintings for this exhibition have been borrowed from the Tate in London and collections in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Oxford.
One thing that surprised her was the keen interest of a noted Pre-Raphaelite artist, Alfred William Hunt.
“I knew he had worked in Teesdale but I hadn’t quite realised how captivated he was by the area.
“At least 17 of his sketchbooks show views of Teesdale inspired by Rokeby.”
Rokeby: Poetry and Landscape runs at the Bowes Museum until April 28 with a programme of related events and workshops. The company Dora Frankel Dance is to perform a new piece of work, The Unfolding Sky: Turner in the North, at the Bowes Museum in March.
For full details call 01833 690606 or visit www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk