Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


92 An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius 1839

Watercolour and gouache on blue wove paper 12.8 x 17.7 (5 x 7)


Clarkson Stanfield was widely viewed as the leading marine artist of his time with J.M.W. Turner being seen as the greatest. Stanfield's fame rested very much on the particularly realistic way in which he depicted dramas at sea, and his success here owed much to the fact that he had been both a mariner and then a theatrical scene-painter. Like Turner but also like many of his colleagues (see, for example, J.F. Lewis, nos.94-6) Stanfield was a seasoned traveller and between 1823 and 1851 made eight sketching tours on the Continent. The longest of all of them, lasting from August 1838 until March 1839, took him via France and Switzerland to Italy, down to Ischia, and back to London along the French Riviera and the river Rh?ne.

Having been delayed by storms, Stanfield arrived in Naples from Ischia on 29 December 1838. Two days later he and some friends together with some guides climbed up to the edge of the crater of Mount Vesuvius. In a letter to his wife, Rebecca, which he wrote on 16 January Stanfield described how he and three others of the party stayed until about eight o'clock at night to watch the fire in the crater before returning to Naples. At five o'clock the following morning, New Year's Day, in Stanfield's words, 'one of the most magnificent eruptions took place that has been seen for many years'. This drawing and three others in the Opp? collection (T08221, T08223, T08224) depict distant views of Vesuvius at various stages of its eruption, presumably later that day, with T08223 showing the scene towards sunset. Like Tresham, for example (no.57), and many artists before, Stanfield made the most of a rare opportunity of watching and recording the terrible forces of Nature at work. Some idea of his excitement can be gained from the fact that in all there are eight known sketches of the event, all on blue paper, with one of them (T08224) a particularly successful experiment in catching the effects of sulphurous smoke with yellow-brown chalks: this drawing and the others in the Opp? collection; two sketches in black chalk in the National Library of Scotland; one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in black and coloured chalks like T08224; and another, the same size and medium as T08221-3 in a private collection (van der Merwe 1979, no.218). Two slight sketches in black chalk on the backs of T08223 and T08224 also seem to relate to the same subject.

The distant view, with the silhouette of Castello del'Ovo to the right, the carefully finished smoke and ash plumes and the fact that none of them is made over a rapid preliminary pencil or chalk drawing suggests that stanfield made these watercolours from a comfortable vantage point to the north of Naples. By contrast the large (26.3 x 36.3; 10 3/8 x 14 5/16) chalk drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum taken from a point much nearer the cone seems to date from a trip on 2 January 1839 when Stanfield and a companion got up to the lava field - a sight which he told his wife 'was the most wonderful and sublime you can conceive'. On the following day he got even closer to the crater and spent the night on the mountain. stanfield was, not surprisingly, overawed by all that he had seen, telling his wife that 'it was a most glorious sight and I ought and am most grateful for that ill-wind that detained me at Ischia'. Before stanfield moved on to Rome he dined with the Duke of Buccleuch and not long after he returned to England he was reported to be working on an oil painting of the subject for him (van der Merwe 1979, no.218). All three of the Vesuvius scenes in the Opp? collection were once attributed to Turner (Wilton 1979, nos.1039-41) but were given to Stanfield by Eric Shanes (Shanes 1981, p.47).

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.218 no.92, reproduced in colour p.219