The scene is near the foot of the steps below the smaller of East Cowes Castle’s two conservatories, with its arcaded south-western façade near the centre. The octagonal white tower to its right was actually some way beyond across a lawn level with the top of the steps. This drawing can be related to the painting Boccaccio Relating the Tale of the Birdcage, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828 (Tate N00507);1 see also Tate D20826 and D20832 (Turner Bequest CCXXVII a 23, 29). While differing in its specifics, the present sketch is the most directly comparable in its composition and spirit with the upright painting, presenting an elegant gathering in a glade below white towers.
The nebulous associations which may have caused Turner to link the modern, albeit medieval-style East Cowes with the Italian early Renaissance poet Boccaccio (1313–1357) and his Decameron story cycle of about 1351 (which does not feature a birdcage) are discussed by Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll in their entry for the painting.2 The artist was probably also thinking of the work of his contemporary Thomas Stothard (1755–1834) in such paintings as Sans Souci, exhibited in 1817 (Tate N01829), and through him of Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) the originator of the Rococo ‘fête galante’ genre (a development of the rustic ‘fête champêtre’ mode). Watteau was referenced directly in the 1831 oil Watteau Painting by Fresnoy’s Rules (Tate N00514),3 which specifically addressed the issue of the spatial effect of areas of white in a painting, whether advancing or receding in relation to adjacent colours, an effect Turner may have had in mind while introducing strong white highlights into his blue paper East Cowes subjects. The distant white castle tower certainly makes its presence felt in the subsequent painting, and an elemental ‘colour beginning’ of a white tower against a blue sky of about that time (D25134; CCLXIII 12) may be related.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.151–2 no.244, pl.245 (colour).
Ibid., p.192 no.340, pl.341; for Watteau and Turner see Whittingham 1985, pp.2–24, and the second part of that article, Turner Studies, vol.5, no.2, Winter 1985, pp.28–48; see also Graham Reynolds, ‘Turner at East Cowes Castle’ in Victoria and Albert Museum Yearbook, vol.I, London 1969, p.74, Gerald Finley, Angel in the Sun: Turner’s Vision of History, Montreal and Kingston [Canada] 1999, p.121, and David Solkin, ‘Competing with Contemporaries’ in Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009, pp.192–3.
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