Room 5: Naught so Sweet as Melancholy Naught so Sweet as Melancholy

Turner Monet Twombly Later Paintings exhibition banner

In the last twenty years of his life, Turner painted a number of works in homage or as memorials to fellow painters or patrons. Peace – Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 commemorates his friend the painter Sir David Wilkie. Wilkie died of typhoid on a voyage back from Egypt and was denied burial on the Rock of Gibraltar for fear of contagion. Turner depicts a ship with black sails before the Rock. Wilkie’s body is lowered to the sea in a blaze of torchlight. War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842, a pendant to Peace, portrays Napoleon on St Helena, reflecting on his fate and the lives lost in battle.

Turner’s late Venetian paintings, executed after his final trip to Venicein 1840, have a mournful air. Monet’s paintings of the same city were begun on a trip with his second wife Alice in 1908. Monet could not resist the temptation of measuring himself against his many predecessors – among them Turner – who had depicted Venice in the past. Many of these canvases were only finished after the death of Alice in 1911, when Monet returned to the Venice motif as a way to come to terms with his loss. Monet’s 1901 painting of Vétheuil, meanwhile, remembers his first wife, Camille, who died in 1879 and is buried there.

Twombly used boats as a theme in both painting and sculpture to symbolise the passage of time. This motif recalls the myth of Charon on the river Styx, ferrying his passengers from the world of the living to that of the dead. Indeed, the boat shape in Winter’s Passage: Luxor 1985 was inspired by traditional funerary boats Twombly had seen in the Cairo Museum. Drifting silently, Twombly’s boats are reminiscent of the words of George Gissing, after whose book, By the Ionian Sea 1901, one of these works is titled. In taking a last look at the sea Gissing expressed his desire to ‘wander endlessly amid the silence of the ancient world, today and all its sounds forgotten.’