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So what is the link between an elephant, the artist JMW Turner and Otley Chevin?

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

On one of my favourite dog walking routes on Otley Chevin there is a wood carving by local sculptor and teacher Shane Green of an elephant and a paint palette. I’d always wondered about its relevance?

It turns out it’s a reference to JMW Turner’s famous painting - Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. The elephant sculpture actually forms part of a wider Heritage Trail on The Chevin using wood which actually came from trees felled on The Chevin after the great storm of 1987.

It is a fascinating tale linking Turner, Otley and the great Commander of the Cartaginian army. I hope you will find my research interesting…

JMW Turner (1775 – 1851) was one of Britain’s most famous landscape painters and was renowned as “the painter of light”. Before Turner, most British artists specialised in historical paintings, but Turner specialised in painting landscapes and is widely regarded as placing landscape painting into the mainstream and also sowing the seeds of impressionism.

Turner visited Yorkshire many times throughout his life and said he found “spirituality in the glorious landscape”. As well as this inspiration, the other reason for his regular visits was to come and stay with his great friend Walter Fawkes who lived at Farnley Hall near Otley.

Farnley Hall, Otley - home of the Fawkes Family

After his first visit in 1797, he painted over 70 locations across Yorkshire including Bolton Abbey, Malham Cove, Aysgarth Falls and Barden Towers to name a few. But in one of his most famous paintings the one relating to the elephant sculpture entitled Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps bucks the trend being more of a historical nature.

But it still has strong links to Yorkshire!

The painting was first exhibited in 1812 and the National Gallery acquired the painting in 1856 after it was left to the nation at Turners bequest. The historic subject matter as I mentioned was unusual and the painting depicted the struggle of Hannibal’s soldiers to cross the Alps in 218 BC , opposed by forces of nature and hostile tribes. This journey is probably best known as Hannibal’s army consisted of a number of elephants!

Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

The painting is now on display at The Tate (thanks to them for the Creative Commons licence to use the image on this blog).

Hannibal Barca was a Commander of the Carthaginian army in 200-100 BC. He was a celebrated military leader. Although he is referenced in the title of this work, Hannibal himself is not pictured. Rather than focus on an individual leader, this work expresses human’s vulnerability when faced with the power of nature. The attention is on the victims of the conflict, the soldiers struggling in the harsh conditions.

But staying in Otley with William Fawkes just part of the story. The image was actually inspired by Otley Chevin, which can be seen across the Wharfe Valley from Farnley Hall.

The Chevin is the name given to a ridge running along the south side of Wharfedale overlooking he market town of Otley. There are some wonderful tracks through acres of old woodland.

Its name actually is of Brittonic origin, a derivation of the words “Cefyn” or “Cefn” meaning “Ridge”. The ridge is formed from carboniferous Millstone Grit and there are many stunning gritstone outcrops and large boulders along the ridge.

On 23rd September 1810, a thunderstorm erupted over The Chevin. Whilst William Fawkes was out on business, his son 15 year old son Hawksworth was in and later recalled…

“Turner called to me loudly from the doorway, Hawkey, Hawkey, Come here, Come here – Look at this thunderstorm. Isn’t it grand?, Isn’t it wonderful?, Isn’t it sublime?.”

“All this time he was making notes of its form and colour on the back of a letter. I proposed some better drawing-block, but he said it did very well. He was absorbed; he was entranced. There was the storm rolling and sweeping and shafting out its lightning over the Yorkshire hills. Presently the storm passed, and he finished. ‘There! Hawkey,’ said he, ‘In two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps’.”

The finished picture, I think you will agree is very dramatic and whilst a historical subject still depicts a stunning landscape – Otley Chevin doubling up for the Alps. The storm forms a menacing dark cloud arched against the sky as the beleaguered Cathaginian army struggle through a rocky valley.

The final link to this interesting tale is the fact that Otley Chevin was once owned by the Fawkes family but they donated the land to Otley Urban District Council after the second world war.

Hope you enjoyed this fascinating tale!

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