View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
This elaborate but uncompleted drawing shows a large classical interior on a fundamentally square plan, with angled corners articulated by arched apses supporting shallow arches over Corinthian colonnades. The spandrels merge to support a continuous circular cornice, from which springs a vast hemispherical dome decorated with octagonal coffering. The flanking colonnades run straight, but the one at the far end is concave, supporting a ribbed and coffered half dome within the main arch, with further columns and arches indicated beyond.
The viewpoint is from below a fourth supporting arch. The vanishing point is slightly off centre, marked by a darkened pinhole above the base of the fifth of eight columns at the far end; the colonnade on the right consequently recedes at a steeper angle than the one opposite. A little above and to the left of the first hole is another indicating where compasses were used to draw the arc of the arch over the far colonnade, with a radius of approximately 140 mm (5 ½ inches). In diagonal line with it a little further up is a third hole, marking the centre of the overarching circumference of the equivalent arch at the near end, outlined in ink with a radius of around 320 mm (12 5/8 inches). The pencil drawing of the complex curves of the circular cornice and the bands of coffering in the dome is assured, as is the ink detailing of the Corinthian columns, pilasters and cornice.
Despite all this careful effort, the drawing’s subject and purpose are unclear. Whether it is an attempt to represent an existing structure or an exercise in architectural composition is as yet undetermined. It does not show the grand London public spaces Turner would have known such as the rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, as painted by Canaletto in 1754 (National Gallery, London) or St Paul’s Cathedral; nor does it depict their Roman forerunners, the Pantheon and St Peter’s basilica. In its basic elements the closest model is perhaps the Oxford Street Pantheon assembly rooms, which Turner knew and painted in the aftermath of the fire which gutted its domed interior in 1792 (see Tate D00121–D00122; Turner Bequest IX A, B), shown in its Rococo prime in a vast painting by William Hodges (1744–1797) and William Pars (1742–1782) now in the Leeds Museums collection. At a cursory glance the present drawing could show the same room, but immediate, fundamental differences present themselves: the side colonnades of James Wyatt’s Pantheon design are of two orders, with Ionic columns supporting a gallery, with a second row of Corinthian columns rising to the cornice; and the half-domed space at the far end has no equivalent colonnade.
As estimated Eric Shanes, Young Mr Turner: The First Forty Years: 1775–1815, New Haven and London 2016, p.20.
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