Joseph Mallord William Turner

Palestrina - Composition

1828, exhibited 1830

On display at Tate Britain

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1403 x 2489 mm
frame: 1836 x 2918 x 170 mm
Bequeathed by C.W. Dyson Perrins 1958

Display caption

This painting is thought to be a work which Turner planned to paint for his patron,
Lord Egremont, during his second visit
to Rome in 1828. Lord Egremont wanted
a companion picture to a landscape
by Claude Lorrain in his collection.


Described as a 'Composition' rather
than a 'View', it is an impression of Italy
in its contemporary decline. It is based on Palestrina, the city which in ancient Roman times had been known as Praeneste, and whose loveliness had been praised by the poets Virgil and Horace.


Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

[from] Works Painted in Rome, 1828–9

TURNER went to Rome for the second time in 1828, leaving England in August and arriving in October; he stayed until early January 1829, and was back in England in February. Sir Charles Eastlake told Thornbury that they both stayed at 12 Piazza Mignanelli and that Turner ‘painted there the “View of Orvieto”, the “Regulus” and the “Medea” [Nos. 292 [N00511], 294 [N00519] and 293 [N00513]]. Those pictures were exhibited in Rome in some rooms which Turner subsequently occupied at the Quattro Fontane. The foreign artists who went to see them could make nothing of them’. However, Eastlake reported a more mixed reception in a letter to England in February 1829: ‘More than a thousand persons went to see his works when exhibited, so you can imagine how astonished, enraged or delighted the different schools of artists were, at seeing things with methods so new, so daring and excellences so unequivocal. The angry critics have, I believe, talked most, and it is possible you may hear of general severity of judgment, but many did justice, and many more were fain to admire what they confessed they dared not imitate.’

Turner advertised in the Diario di Roma for 17 December 1828 that he was to exhibit ‘due Paesaggi’ for a week at the Palazzo Trulli. These John Gage identifies as Orvieto and Regulus, though it is known that Medea was on view on 17 December. In a letter of February 1829, Eastlake confirmed that Turner had exhibited these three works, as well as having begun ‘eight or ten pictures’ (for a later letter by Eastlake, see No. 328a).

A number of paintings from the Turner Bequest are identical in their coarse canvas, the form of the original stretcher, and the way in which the canvas was fastened to the stretcher (with upholsterer's sprigs) to Orvieto and Medea (Regulus is on a similar canvas, but has lost its original stretcher and form of attachment). These are the three figure subjects, Nos. 296 [N05498], 297 [N05517] and 298 [N05509], and Southern Landscape, No. 299 [N05510]. Other works probably from the group are Nos. 300 [N05506] and 301 [N05473]. Other candidates for works begun in Rome are the composition sketches on a similar though even rather coarser canvas, Nos. 302–17; see p. 160. These sketches, and one of the larger unfinished pictures (No. 300), shows signs of having been rolled, presumably for ease of despatch to London. Both types of coarse canvas would seem to be Italian in origin, presumably purchased in Rome. Probably also from this trip are the smaller sketches on millboard. Nos. 318–27.

Turner had in fact written from Paris on II August 1828 to Charles Eastlake, who was already in Rome, asking him to secure one or two canvases, 59 1/4 × 98 1/2 in., so that he could begin straight away on a landscape for Lord Egremont. This is generally held to be Palestrina (No. 295 [N06283]), which measures 55 1/4 × 98 in. but is in fact on a fine canvas.

Turner himself reported his progress in a letter to Sir Francis Chantrey of 6 November 1828: ‘I have confined myself to the painting department...and having finished one, am about the second, and getting on with Lord E's [presumably Palestrina], which I began the very first touch at Rome; but as folk here talked that I would show them not, I finished a small three feet four to stop their gabbling’; this last was presumably Orvieto.

Eastlake's account in Thornbury goes on, ‘When those same works were packed to be sent to England, I advised him to have the cover covered with waxed cloth, as the pictures without it might be exposed to wet. Turner thanked me, and said the advice was important; “for”, he added, “if any wet gets to them, they will be destroyed.” This indicates his practice of preparing his pictures with a kind of tempera, a method which, before the surface was varnished, was not waterproof [in fact analysis has not revealed any tempera, though Turner did quite often use watercolour on his oils and in at least one case, No. 300, a picture apparently from this group seems to have suffered losses to its water-soluble glazes]. The pictures referred to were in fact not finished; nor could any of his exhibited pictures be said to be finished till he had worked on them when they were on the walls of the Royal Academy’. This is supported by the review of Orvieto in the Morning Chronicle for 3 May 1830 quoted under Pilate washing his Hands (No. 332 [N00510]). Although Turner had hoped that his Rome paintings would reach London in time for the 1829 Exhibition, there were shipping delays and Orvieto and Palestrina were not exhibited until 1830, nor Medea until 1831; Regulus was not exhibited until 1837.

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 221; 1877, p. 100; Finberg 1961, pp. 307–11; Gage 1968, pp. 679–80; Gage 1980, pp. 118–20, 125, 127, 132.

Nos. 292–5: Exhibited Pictures

295. [N06283] Palestrina-Composition 1828


Canvas, 55 1/4 × 98 (140·.5 × 249)

Coll. Sold March 1844 to Elhanan Bicknell; sale Christie's 25 April 1863 (122) bought (in) Henry Bicknell; sale Christie's 24 March 1865 (206) bought in Miller; sale Christie's 9 April 1881 (463) bought Agnew's for James Dyson Perrins; Charles William Dyson Perrins by 1939, bequeathed 1958 to the National Gallery; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1961.

Exh. R.A. 1830 (181); R.S.A. 1845 (60); R.A. Winter 1872 (11); R.A. 1951–2 (176); Tokyo and Kyoto 1970–71 (42, repr.).

Lit. Ruskin 1843 and letters (1903–12, iii, p. 243; xxxvi, pp. 441–2); Waagen 1854, ii, p. 350; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 224; 1877, p. 100; Hamerton 1879, pp. 220–22; Bell 1901, pp. 112–13 no. 166; Armstrong 1902, pp. 226; Whitley 1930, p. 192; Evans and Whitehouse 1956, p. 270; Davies 1959, p. 102; Finberg 1961, pp. 307, 321–2, 340, 397, 406, 409, 490 no. 349, 509 no. 570; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 38; Lindsay 1966, p. 119; 19662, p. 49; Gage 1968, p. 679; Reynolds 1969, pp. 129, 137; Herrmann 1975, pp. 35–6, 49, 232, pl. 122; Wilton 1979, p. 221; Gage 1980, pp. 118, 120, 195; Paulson 1982, pp. 70–1, pl. 36; Kitson 1983, p. 13.

Exhibited in 1830 with the following verses:

‘Or from you mural rock, high-crowned Præneste,
Where, misdeeming of his strength, the Carthaginian stood,
And marked, with eagle-eye, Rome as his victim.’

MS Fallacies of Hope.

This is generally accepted as being the picture that Turner painted for Lord Egremont at Rome in 1828–9, though it never entered Egremont's collection and is on a relatively fine canvas very different from those known definitely to have been used in Rome (see p. 170). On 11 August 1828 Turner wrote from Paris to Charles Eastlake asking ‘that the best of all possible grounds and canvass size 8 feet 2 1/2 by 4 feet 11 1/4 Inches to be if possible ready for me, 2 canvasses if possible’, as ‘It would give me the greatest pleasure, independent of other feelings which modern art and of course artists, and I among the number, owe to Lord Egremont, that my first brush in Rome ... should be to begin for him con amore a companion picture to his beautiful CLAUDE’ —presumably the Jacob and Laban, 56 1/2 × 99 in., still at Petworth. On 6 November 1828 Turner wrote to Chantrey that he was ‘getting on with lord E's, which I began the very first touch at Rome’. In the event Lord Egremont bought Jessica (No. 333 [T03887]), also shown at the R.A. in 1830, though not until the following year. The picture was still in Turner's possession on 1 February 1844, when he wrote to the dealer Griffith that ‘The Palestrina I shall open my mouth widely ere I part with it’. However, when Ruskin saw it a few weeks later, on 27 March, it was already sold to Elhanan Bicknell for a thousand guineas.

Later Ruskin himself became interested in the acquisition of this picture, writing to his father on 2 May 1863, shortly after the picture had been bought in at the Bicknell sale, to encourage him to buy it: ‘I am also much inclined to say—buy the Palestrina. You may have it for nothing, literally—as long as you choose. It will be worth £4000 in five years more—which will pay both interest and insurance’. Alluding to Turner's original title he goes on, ‘It is not a composition—it is Virgil's Praeneste—insisting on the stream descending from the hills (the bridge evidently being a careful study on the spot), because of the following lines’: he quotes Virgil Æneid vii, 11, 683–5. ‘The way Turner used to find out the character and meaning of a whole family of scenes in this way is quite miraculous.’

The lines from Virgil referred to by Ruskin come in the description of the rallying of the bands of Latium against Æneas: ‘men whose homes were on Praeneste's height, on Juno's farmlands at Gabii, by the cool Anio and amid porous Hernican rocks which rivulets bedew’ (transl. W.F. Jackson Knight 1956, p. 196). Turner's own verses, quoted above, seem however to refer to Hannibal. He may also have recalled the reference ‘To where Presneste lifts her airy brow’ in Thomson's Liberty, 1735, l. 64, part of a description of the ‘once glorious Rome’ which occurs in the section on ‘Ancient and Modern Italy compared’ and its message for contemporary Britain (for what seems to be an earlier reference to this theme see No. 135 [N00499]).

For the Sun, 3 May 1830, this was ‘A glorious composition’. Other reviews were more guarded, though it was preferred to Pilate washing his Hands and Jessica (Nos. 332 [N00510] and 333 [T03887]). The Literary Gazette for 15 May wrote, ‘In such performances as this, he may exhibit the richness and even the riot of his imagination with impunity, or rather with applause. There is enough of nature to shew that attention to her has formed the basis of a structure full of poetical feeling, but exceedingly artificial withal.’

When exhibited at Edinburgh in 1845 the picture aroused further critical comment. The Caledonian Mercury for 17 February, after noting that the picture had been purchased for a thousand guineas, found that, though it did not immediately have the effect of Neapolitan Fisher-Girls (No. 388), ‘its beauties emerge as it is calmly surveyed ... We heard one remark, that it seems as if his [Turner's] pencil was each time dipped in a sunbeam, so splendid was the effect’. The Scotsman for 1 March was more severe, echoing the usual criticisms of ‘the peculiarities of Mr. Turner's later style’: ‘There is certainly in it much glare and glitter... On the other hand, there is something very grand and splendid in the effect of the whole, as viewed from a little distance ... Parts of the foliage and front regions, will bear to be inspected minutely ... The avenue, the bridge, and the stream, are all finely given. Turner is a singular man, and he has shown his possession of that highest of all gifts, originality—which is genius.’

Armstrong's reference to this picture as belonging to ‘Mrs Williams’ seems to have been a mistake; by family tradition the picture remained in the possession of the Dyson Perrins from 1881 until 1958.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984