Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Ponte Delle Torri, Spoleto


Oil paint on canvas
Support: 914 x 1219 mm
frame: 1235 x 1540 x 145 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Spoleto is a picturesque town in Umbria, famous for its Ponte delle Torri (Bridge of Towers), a medieval feat of engineering which spans the deep gorge to the east. Turner passed through the town on his way to Rome in 1819. As in so many of his Italian-inspired oils, he has enhanced real topography with an evocative but imagined sense of atmosphere. The composition is reworked from an earlier image known as ‘Bridge and Goats’. That etching was published in 1812 as part of the Liber Studiorum, a series of prints summing up Turner’s achievements in landscape to date.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

[from] Nos. 509–19: Unfinished Paintings, mainly of Liber Studiorum Subjects, c. 1840–50.

THIS group of late paintings, roughly similar in size, style, colouring and degree of finish, is remarkable in being based largely on compositions used much earlier by Turner for the Liber Studiorum. Only Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (No. 516 [N02002]) and Landscape with River and Distant Mountains (No. 517) seem to be entirely new inventions. In addition all but three of the remaining paintings are of subjects that Turner classified as ‘E.P.’, almost certainly ‘elevated pastoral’. Of the others, one, Norham Castle, Sunrise (No. 512 [N01981]) is a ‘P’ or ‘pastoral’ subject, Inverary Pier (No. 519) is an ‘M’ or ‘marine’ subject, while Europa and the Bull (No. 514) is based on a detail of the frontispiece, which was not given a classification. The degree of dependence on the Liber model varies. In the case of Landscape with a River and Bay in the Distance (No. 509), Chepstow Castle, which forms the main topographical motif of the Liber plate, ‘The Junction of the Severn and the Wye’, is omitted, but in two other cases, rather surprisingly, Turner makes the late oil more topographically specific than the Liber plate, Landscape with Walton Bridges (No. 511) and The Ponte delle Torri, Spoleto (No. 518 [N02424]).

All the paintings are unfinished and seem to be in the state in which Turner took such unfinished works into the Royal Academy or the British Institution before completing them on varnishing days; see in particular John Burnet's description of such unfinished pictures as being ‘divided into large masses of blue, where the water or sky was to come, and [with] the other portions laid out in broad orange yellow, falling into delicate brown where the trees and landscapes were to be placed’ (Burnet 1852, p. 100; 1859, pp. 84–5), and Rippingille's description of Turner at work on The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons at the British Institution in 1835 (see No. 359). It has, however, been suggested that these works are more than just a random selection of late unfinished pictures. Lawrence Gowing, at the Turner Symposium held at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore in April 1975, suggested that Turner may have painted this series as a trial run to see if such ‘sketchy’ pictures were marketable. At the same symposium Jerrold Ziff suggested that, although towards the end of his life Turner appeared to become increasingly occupied with images of disaster, this group of oils, mainly of ‘elevated pastoral’ or ‘pastoral’ subjects, shows that Turner still felt that there was a place for the idyllic in the repertoire of a landscape painter and that he may have intended the group to stand as a reaffirmation of his faith in Nature in her more tranquil moods.

On the other hand, one cannot guarantee that Turner, in completing these unfinished works, might not have radically changed their mood; Frith's anecdote about Turner adding the dominant blue to Undine giving the Ring to Massaniello (see No. 424 [N00549]) shows how drastic Turner's alterations could be. Turner's last four exhibits in 1850 (Nos. 429–32 [N00552-N00555]) could all have been painted over such a lay-in as Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (No. 516 [N02002]). Moreover, if this group of works is as late as has sometimes been argued (see below) one has to face the fact that Turner may have been at a loss for new compositions. Of the three works he exhibited between 1847 and 1849 inclusive, one was an early work left untouched, Venus and Adonis (No. 150), while the other two were also early works, reworked for the occasion, The Hero of a Hundred Fights (No. 427 [N00551]) and The Wreck Buoy (No. 428).

Turner's use of Liber Studiorum subjects has been associated with his revival of interest in that publication; in May and June 1845 he had McQueen's run off fifteen new sets (see John Pye and J. L. Roget, Notes and Memoranda respecting the Liber Studiorum of J. M. W. Turner, 1879, p. 71 n., and Gage 1980, p. 206). In addition, it has recently been discovered that the paintings from the series now in the Tate Gallery were painted on canvases supplied by the firm of T. Brown that bear stamps of a form that does not seem to have been used before about 1839 and also, in one case, a second stamp incorporating an element that gives the year in which the canvas was made: Norham Castle, Sunrise (No. 512 [N01981]) bears an example of this second form of stamp implying the date 1844 (see Butlin, loc. cit.). This means that the dating to c. 1835–40 given in the first edition of this catalogue must be wrong and that the whole group must date from c. 1840 or later, with Norham Castle, Sunrise after 1844. In reviews of our first edition Luke Herrmann had already suggested that at least some of this group could date from the later 1840s or even to c. 1850 and Eric Shanes (1981) had suggested a dating of c. 1845, when McQueen reprinted the Liber; Andrew Wilton had also suggested that this group of oils ‘are products of Turner's last years’. More recently John Gage has also dated the group to c. 1845 (1983–4, loc. cit.), and Eric Shanes has gone further (1984), suggesting an actual order of completion beginning c. 1845 with the ‘initial delicacy and control’ of Norham Castle and Inverary Pier (Nos. 512 [N01981] and 519) and ending c. 1848, Turner's physical limitations having become acute, with ‘the somewhat rougher and clumsier handling’ of paintings such as Sunrise, a Castle on a Bay and The Ponte delle Torri, Spoleto (Nos. 515 [[N00515] and 518 [N02424]). However, if one is correct in seeing these pictures as unfinished works it is probably going too far to derive dating arguments from their precise degree of finish and subtlety.

Although four of these works remained in Turner's collection and became part of the Turner Bequest the remaining seven were dispersed, either during his lifetime or relatively soon after his death. How they left Turner's studio is a mystery. Two of the series (Nos. 511 and 513) were sold at Christie's in 1865 from the collection of John Pound, the son by her first marriage of Mrs Booth, Turner's mistress and later housekeeper in his last years at Chelsea. Turner had presumably given these pictures either to her or to her son, or they had been left in his Chelsea studio at his death and been appropriated, but none of the other pictures in the series can be shown to have come from this source. There is a possibility that they were among the approximately eighty pictures that were rejected from the Turner Bequest by the National Gallery in 1856 on the grounds that they were not genuine, but against this suggestion must be weighed both the fact that these exclusions were made by Sir Charles Eastlake, a friend of Turner's who knew his work well, and also that a number of canvases that were still less ‘finished’ than those in this series were accepted for the Bequest. Nor can these works be identified in the Schedules of 1854 and 1856, which listed all the works in Turner's possession when he died, whether by him or not. They may have simply remained as a pile of unstretched canvases, perhaps rolled up together, and have been removed from Turner's studio; Stefan Slabczynski, former Keeper of Conservation at the Tate Gallery, who cleaned No. 509 for the Louvre, reported that it had formerly been rolled up as had others of the group (see Nos. 510 and 517). A letter written by Effie Ruskin to her mother on 24 August 1852, telling her that Ruskin had renounced the executorship of Turner's will as he was sickened by all the disputes over it, continued ‘... certain it is that already Turner's lawyer has stolen a bag of drawings’, which makes it sound as if the studio was open to pilfering of this kind. (Incidentally, had the late codicil to Turner's will that restricted the works that were to go to the nation to his ‘finished pictures’ not been set aside, none of this group, nor any other of Turner's unfinished pictures, would have formed part of the Turner Bequest.)

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 62–4; Gage 1975, pp. 454–6; Herrmann 1978, p. 773; Wilton 1979, pp. 224, 247; Butlin 1981, pp. 43–5; Shanes 1981, pp. 45–6; Gage in exh. cat., Paris 1983–4, pp. 149–51; Shanes 1984, pp. 284–8.

518. [N02424] The Ponte delle Torri, Spoleto c. 1840–50


Canvas, 36 × 48 (91 × 122)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1909.

Exh. Amsterdam 1936 (165); Venice 1938 (10); Cologne, Rome and Warsaw 1966–7 (59, repr.); Agnew 1967 (24); Prague, Bratislava (144, repr.) and Vienna (55) 1969; Tokyo and Kyoto 1970–71 (45, repr. in colour); Dresden (15) and Berlin (22, colour pl. 32) 1972; Milan 1975 (152, colour pl. 8); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (79).

Lit. Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 50, pl. 110; Giovanni Carandente, ‘Un Viaggio di Turner in Umbria’ in Spoletium xi 13, April 1968, pp. 20–21, repr. in colour p. 13; Herrmann 1975, pp. 47, 234, pl. 155; Butlin 1981, p. 45; Shanes 1981, p. 46; Shanes 1984, p. 287.

As Eric Shanes has pointed out, this composition is also based on a Liber Studiorum subject, though in this case the dependence is less close than that in the other examples in this group. The model is the plate published on 23 April 1812 and usually known as ‘Bridge and Goats’ (Rawlinson 43; repr. Finberg 1924, p. 171). In the painting the hill on the left is raised in height, the forms of the buildings on the left of the bridge are different, there is an extra arch to the bridge, and the trees on the right are completely different in form; the firmly defined road flanked by walls that leads diagonally across the foreground of the print has practically disappeared. Already, before Shanes's discovery, the subject of the painting had been identified by Giovanni Carandente as the Ponte delle Torri at Spoleto (this identification was first made in the Italian language exhibition catalogue for the British Council's tour of 1966–7). Turner first visited Spoleto in 1819, well after the date of the Liber plate, and sketched the bridge in the ‘Ancona to Rome’ sketchbook (CLXXVII-40 and, particularly close to the painting, 41, repr. Carandente, op. cit., pp. 17 and 16 respectively). When Turner came to paint No. 518 [N02424] he seems to have taken elements from both sources. The buildings to the left of the bridge are closer to those he sketched at Spoleto while the bridge itself, though different from the Liber plate, is still closer to that composition. One small detail is particularly close to the Liber plate, the hill surmounted by two small trees above the right-hand end of the bridge. The painting is therefore an interesting example of Turner's method, apparently showing him modifying an imaginary composition, that of the Liber plate, as a result of what he had actually seen subsequently in Italy, all at a date some twenty-five years after this experience.

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