Joseph Mallord William Turner


1828, reworked 1837

On display at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 895 x 1238 mm
frame: 1135 x 1460 x 93 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Regulus was a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians. They sent him back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned to Carthage, having failed his mission, he was punished by having his eyelids removed. Turner’s blinding, light-filled canvas makes manifest Regulus’s plight.

Turner first exhibited this painting in Rome in 1828. His audience would have recognised its echoes of a famous seaport by the seventeenth-century painter, Claude Lorrain, in the Uffizzi gallery in Florence. Turner clearly wanted to show himself as heir to the tradition of landscape painting begun by Claude.

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

294. [N00519] Regulus 1828; reworked 1837


Canvas, 35 1/4 × 48 3/4 (91 × 124)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (79, ‘Regulus’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. Rome 1828–9; B.I. 1837 (120); Arts Council tour 1952 (11); Edinburgh 1968 (5); R.A. 1974–5 (474, repr.).

Engr. By D. Wilson 1840 as ‘Ancient Carthage—The Embarcation of Regulus.’

Lit. Ruskin 1843, 1857 (1903–12, iii, p. 241; xiii, pp. 151, 157); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 221, 330; 1877, pp. 454–5; Lionel Cust, ‘The Portraits of J. M. W. Turner’, Magazine of Art 1895, pp. 248–9; Bell 1901, p. 133 no. 207; Armstrong 1902, p. 227; Whitley 1930, p. 159; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 310–11, 365, 367, 500 no. 471; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 12; Ziff 1965, pp. 59–61, pl. 7; Lindsay 1966, pp. 236 n. 29, 246 n.4; Gage 1968, pp. 679–80; Gage 1969, pp. 143, 169, 264–5 n. 152, pl. 28; Herrmann 1975, pp. 35, 232, pl. 126; Paulson 1978, pp. 171–2, 178–9; Vaughan 1979, p. 472; Wilton 1979, pp. 220–2, pl. 221; Gage 1980, p. 120; Wilton 1980, pp. 101, 142–3; Paulson 1982, pp. 80–3, 85, 88–9, pl. 43; Kitson 1983, pp. 13–14, pl. 19.

One of the paintings, like Nos. 292 [N00511] and 293 [N00513], known to have been painted and exhibited in Rome in 1828, but considerably reworked before being exhibited again in 1837. The young Sir John Gilbert (1817–97), having a picture opposite Turner's in the British Institution, observed Turner at work on it. ‘He was absorbed in his work, did not look about him, but kept on scumbling a lot of white into his picture—nearly all over it ... The picture was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in this fiery state. He had a large palette, nothing in it but a huge lump of flake-white; he had two or three biggish hog tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface. This was the only work he did, and it was the finishing stroke. The sun, as I have said, was in the centre; from it were drawn— ruled —lines to mark the rays; these lines were rather strongly marked, I suppose to guide his eye. The picture gradually became wonderfully effective, just the effect of brilliant sunlight absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object. Standing sideway of the canvas, I saw that the sun was a lump of white standing out like the boss on a shield’ (Cust, loc. cit.). A small oil by Thomas Fearnley shows the scene, though the picture is enlarged in scale (repr. Gage 1969, pl. 30).

The composition is a Claudian seaport of the kind sketched by Turner at probably much the same time as he first worked on this picture (see No. 313 [N03382]), and the colour also resembles the rather unusual colour of these sketches. The particular model is Claude's Seaport with the Villa Medici in the Uffizi, the subject of the only large drawing after Claude that Turner made on his 1819 visit to Italy (‘Rome and Florence’ sketchbook, CXCI-60, repr. Ziff, op. cit., pl. 3).

The absence, among the scene of activity, of any figure actually identifiable as Regulus has been explained by John Gage: Regulus, having deliberately failed to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with the Carthaginians, returned from Rome to Carthage and was punished by having his eyelids cut off and being exposed to the sun, which blinded him. The spectator stands in the position of Regulus, with the sun shining out of the picture full in his face. That Turner knew the story is shown by the verses, based on Horace, quoted by Thornbury (1862, ii, p. 25), though these do not describe the form of Regulus' punishment. Wilton, however, doubts this interpretation, pointing out that Daniel Wilson's engraving (repr. Wilton 1980, pl. 54), which was presumably published under Turner's supervision, was entitled ‘Ancient Carthage—the Embarkation of Regulus’. He identifies as Regulus the small but brilliantly lit figure at the head of the flight of steps on the right of the engraving in the middle distance; even in the oil painting this figure is distinguished by being paler than the rest.

All the same, the Literary Gazette for 4 February 1837 wasted some space in speculating on the whereabouts of the protagonist, despite recognising that the ‘sun absolutely dazzles the eyes’. ‘Nevertheless’, wrote the critic, ‘who could have painted such a picture but Mr. Turner? What hand but his could have created such perfect harmony? Who is there so profoundly versed in the arrangement and management of colours?’ The Spectator for 11 February made an interesting comparison with Claude: ‘Turner is just the reverse of Claude; instead of the repose of beauty—the soft serenity and mellow light of an Italian scene—here all is glare, turbulence, and uneasiness. The only way to be reconciled to the picture is to look at it from as great a distance as the width of the gallery will allow of, and then you see nothing but a burst of sunlight. This is scene-painting—and very fine it is in its way.’

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

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