Joseph Mallord William Turner

Lecture Diagram: Colour Circle No.1


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 556 x 762 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCV 178

Display caption

Turner created only two diagrams dealing with colour theory. He used them in a lecture on atmospheric perspective: the use of colour, light and shade to lend a picture a sense of depth.

This diagram illustrates the behaviour of colour in light. Turner used it to address colour symbolism of the times of day, explaining that the upper and lower portions of the diagram represent the light and dark of day and night. He told his students ‘suppose the yellow triangle light, red and blue shade; and hence we have grey morning, the yellow midday and crimson evening’.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

Towards the end of his tenure as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, Turner produced two diagrams dealing with aspects of colour theory (see also Tate D17150; Turner Bequest CXCV 179). John Gage provisionally dates the diagrams and corresponding lecture text to 1827, when Turner would have heard Thomas Phillips’s Academy lectures on colour, but also suggests that he assembled the relevant information earlier, possibly in 1825.1 Turner based his diagrams on a colour wheel from Moses Harris’s manual, Natural System of Colours (1811, p.5). Gage and Martin Kemp discuss how Turner rethought and reconfigured Harris’s wheel to explore the differences between ‘aerial’ or light colours, as in the spectrum (in the present Colour Circle No.1) and ‘material’ colours, as in pigments (in Colour Circle No.2, see Tate D17150). Gage explains how this diagram shows aerial colours changing according to the times of day, with light at the top giving way to dark at the bottom: ‘As primaries the colours are able to show light and darkness by themselves; in compounds the combinations of greys, browns and neutrals is infinite, in the progression towards black.’2
Turner, ‘Royal Academy Lectures’, circa 1807–38, Department of Western Manuscripts, British Library, London, ADD MS 46151 BB folios 66–7, 68–9 verso.
Gage 1969, p.114.
Currently laid down.

Andrea Fredericksen
January 2004

Supported by The Samuel H. Kress Foundation

Revised by David Blayney Brown
January 2012

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