Joseph Mallord William Turner

Lecture Diagram: Colour Circle No.2


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: 550 x 758 mm
frame: 700 x 914 x 30 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCV 179

Display caption

Turner was one of the first theorists to explore the differences and relationships between ‘aerial’ colours, as in light (see the diagram to the left), and ‘material’ colours, as in pigments. In his lecture he explained how the colours of light mix to produce white, while a mixture of material colours creates black.

This diagram is based on a prismatic circle from a book by Moses Harris entitled Natural Systems of Colour about 1770. It shows how in pigments the three primary colours – yellow, blue and red – mix to make a muddy grey.

Gallery label, July 2004

Catalogue entry

This is the second of the diagrams of colour circles (see also Tate D17149; Turner Bequest CXCV 178) created by Turner towards the end of his tenure as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. See notes to D17149 for John Gage’s provisional dating of the diagrams and corresponding lecture text to 1827, when Turner would have heard Thomas Phillips’s Academy lectures on colour, and his further suggestion that Turner had collected the relevant information earlier, perhaps in 1825.1 Turner based the drawings on a colour wheel from Moses Harris’s manual, Natural System of Colours (1811, p.5) but, as both Gage and Martin Kemp describe, rethought and reconfigured Harris’s wheel to explore the differences between ‘aerial’ or light colours, as in the spectrum (in Colour Circle No.1, see Tate D17149), as in the spectrum, and ‘material’ colours, as in pigments (in Colour Circle No.2), as in pigments. This diagram shows how the three primary colours – yellow, blue and red – mix to make a muddy grey.
Turner, ‘Royal Academy Lectures’, circa 1807–38, Department of Western Manuscripts, British Library, London, ADD MS 46151 BB folios 66–7, 68–9 verso.
Currently laid down

Andrea Fredericksen
January 2004

Supported by The Samuel H. Kress Foundation

Revised by David Blayney Brown
January 2012

Read full Catalogue entry