Venetian whispers

Allan Massie

The year is 1819; Venice is fading under Austrian rule after a thousand years of independence and imperial glory. Britain's most famous artist, J.M.W. Turner, and most famous poet, Lord Byron, are both in residence. But did they ever meet? As an exhibition celebrating Turner and Venice opens at Tate Britain, the biographer and novelist Allan Massie unravels the mystery

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa’ exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Venice: An Imaginary View of the Arsenale’ c.1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice: An Imaginary View of the Arsenale c.1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Boats in Front of the Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute’ 1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Boats in Front of the Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute 1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘A Study of Firelight (Venice?)’ c.1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Study of Firelight (Venice?) c.1840

I don’t know if this story is true. I had it myself at third, or even fourth, hand. So, in the Chinese whispers of anecdotage, some distortion of fact is likely. Nevertheless, as they say in Italy – and it is an Italian, or rather Venetian tale – se non vero, ben trovato.

Some years back I wrote a book about Byron, (Byron’s Travels, now long out of print, if you want to know). As a result I was invited to speak to the Byron Society. This was not a success; my fault, I had lunched too well (with Auberon Waugh) and continued drinking throughout the afternoon. A few days later I got a letter from a retired diplomat who had attended my lecture, and had a story that might interest me. Would I care to have lunch with him? At The Ritz, he added, as if I might be in need of such inducement. Despite the embarrassment which the memory of my Byron evening caused me, I accepted.

We talked a little, generally about nothing much. Then he took a sheet of yellowed paper from a folder he had rested against the table leg.

‘What do you make of that?’

And, as I looked at the sketch, blurred, shadowed, yet made with strong, assured lines, he recited:

The Moon is up, and yet it is not Night –
Sunset divides the sky with her – a sea
Of glory streams along the Alpine height
Of blue Friuli’s mountains.

‘Catches the mood, doesn’t it?’ he said. ‘It’s Turner, you know. At least I’m pretty sure it’s Turner.’

‘I wouldn’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s good, I can see that. But I’m ignorant, no expert. Did Turner ever illustrate Childe Harold? I hadn’t heard that he did.’

Again I felt embarrassed. It seemed as if my professed knowledge of Byron was to be proved inadequate.

‘No record that he did,’ he said. ‘But look at that line, look at these clouds, I’d take my oath… Rum business, art – you’ll know that Turner said that. and my story’s rum enough. It’s not really mine, but my great-uncle’s.’

He paused and sipped his wine.

‘I’ve led a very respectable life,’ he said. ‘Finished as an ambassador. Not a very distinguished embassy I admit. My Uncle Eddie was not so respectable. He lived most of his adult life in Italy. People with his tastes did, often, in his day, you understand. He was a poet of sorts, a dilettante who spent half his life making notes for a Byron book that never got written. In the late Thirties he used to go to Venice for the winter. He loved it then, and it was the Italian city least enthusiastic about Fascism. This is his story, which he told me shortly before his death, just after the war. I was at Cambridge then, Trinity – you were at Trinity too, I think? Like Byron and Uncle Eddie himself.

‘He’d got through most of his money by then. So the days of grand hotels such as the Hôtel des Bains where Thomas Mann installed Aschenbach were over. He used to stay in a little pensione in a calle 50 yards off the Grand Canal. Over the years he had become friendly with the proprietor, partly because – though Ettore was a married man with a family – Uncle Eddie was not long in discerning that he shared his tastes. Common enough, of course, in Venice as elsewhere – didn’t Châteaubriand call it “an unnatural city?”

‘Forgive me if my story seems slow. But I like to set the scene. And if you are to judge its credibility. Anyway, it was the late autumn turning to winter of 1939. Italy, as you know, was not yet at war, but ever since the Abyssinian affair, feeling against England and the English was running high. Back in Florence Uncle Eddie had been made to feel persona non grata. There had been a bit of what he called “fuss”. Ettore commiserated; he found Uncle Eddie simpatico. They would sit drinking white wine or grappa and listening to the rain as darkness closed in.

‘“Ah. Venice, lost and won,
Her thirteen hundred years of freedom done,
Sinks, like a sea-weed, unto whence she rose…”
sighed my uncle in his distress.

‘“The milord,” Ettore pressed my uncle’s hand, “the Lord Byron,” and then, shyly at first, told this story.

‘“Why only then?” I asked my uncle. “Perhaps,” he said, “because we both sensed that all things were drifting to an end. I don’t know. I was only so touched that he now chose to share this confidence…”

‘Ettore was, he said, a descendant, great-grandson would it be? – of Byron’s mistress Margarita Cogni. You remember – indeed I think you quote in your book - that Byron delighted in this woman “with the strength of an Amazon and the temper of Medea” and liked the fact that she was illiterate and so “could not plague me with”. Ettore, my uncle said, was very different – the mildest mannered of men and well read in Venetian, Italian and even English literature. But he was proud of his connection, though modestly stopped short of saying that he was descended from Byron himself. Byron called Venice “the mask of Italy”. I’ve never been quite sure what he meant…

‘According to Ettore, this English painter arrived with a commission from he didn’t know whom. Byron was happy to lodge him in the Palazzo Mocenigo. I suppose one guest more or less in that tumbling household made no difference. But Margarita took against him. He wasn’t a galantuomo, she said, but a grumpy, surly fellow who seemed to place himself, as an artist, on a level with the milord. This offended her. He didn’t know, she said, how to behave. He was dirty in mind and body – sporchissimo – a wonderful word to spit out, with zs rather than ss really, I suppose, in Venetian. But Byron took pleasure in his company. I imagine that Turner’s naturalness – I’m assuming it was Turner – and the seriousness with which he took his work while being entirely free of pretentiousness appealed to Byron, who choked off Tom Moore’s rhapsodies with his “Damme, Tom, don’t be poetical”.

‘Who had given Turner his commission? John Murray? His patron Lord Egremont? Uncle Eddie didn’t know and it doesn’t matter. But it’s clear what it was: to illustrate a new edition of Childe Harold, and he had come to Venice to discuss with Byron which scenes in that vast travelogue would make the most dramatic and Romantic pictures. Of course, being in Venice, he found things to draw every day. Margarita, incidentally, thought nothing of his work. I suppose her taste inclined to the geometric accuracy of Guardi and Canaletto. But she may have disliked the work because she disliked the man. You must find that yourself as a reviewer.

‘Byron, Ettore insisted, didn’t share Margarita’s distaste. The painter amused him. He might be - this was Uncle Eddie’s interpretation – a cockney, but he wasn’t cockneyfied like Leigh Hunt, or indeed poor “piss-a-bed” Keats. All the same, Turner may have felt more at ease with Fletcher, Byron’s valet. They went out on the town together. Fletcher had always had a taste for whores – you remember how angry Byron was when Fletcher introduced young Robert Rushton, his boy servant, to that sort of company. I like to think that Fletcher presented Turner, never without a propensity for low-life, with that eminently useful Tariffa delle putane di Venezia. But it seems not to have been enough to satisfy him…’

‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked.

‘Just the question I put to Uncle Eddie. He said, “A painter lives through his eye and by his hand”.’


‘Perhaps.’ My host paused. ‘Think we should have some brandy, Armagnac perhaps? Do you know Evelyn Waugh’s joke about the Turkish ambassador and Lolita?’

‘Yes,’ I offered, “In my country we do not like to read about such things - we prefer to see them”.’

‘Exactly. That, it seems, was Turner’s opinion too. He was a voyeur, Ettore said. The painter’s eye, I suppose. So it wasn’t enough to go on the town with Fletcher and bring his whores back to the palazzo. His curiosity was insatiable and soon, it seems he was spying on Byron. Fletcher, according to Ettore, caught him at it and boxed his ears. Then, his suspicions aroused, he found occasion to examine the painter’s sketchbook. Most of the drawings were innocent enough – the sort of thing I showed you. There were also some pornographic sketches, which I dare say Fletcher in another mood would have appreciated. They were beautifully done, erotic certainly but imbued with distaste. However, what really put the cat among the Venetian pigeons and threw Fletcher into a panic was that a couple of them showed Byron on the job. In one he was coupling with Margarita, legs entwined, and it was so lifelike, Uncle Eddie said, that you could all but smell the sweat and semen. The other was even more alarming. The poet was lying naked on a couch with a curly-headed boy astride him. The boy had turned his head towards the hidden artist and was laughing, as if with an accomplice. “Lubricious – terribly exciting,” was Uncle Eddie’s verdict.’

‘Your Uncle actually saw these drawings?’

‘Oh yes. They’d been kept in Ettore’s family. I like to think the boy was one of those Shelley described as “wretches that seem to have lost the gait and physiognomy of men”. Awful prig, Shelley, like so many high-minded revolutionaries.’

He took a cigar from a leather case.

‘As to the precise course of events, Uncle Eddie was vague, Ettore too, one assumes. Fletcher was certainly in a stew. After all, if the painter had had access to Byron’s antechamber and been able to peer through the keyhole or from behind a curtain, then Fletcher as the valet was likely to be blamed. Somehow he ejected Turner – if it was Turner…’ he looked at the drawing again. ‘Oh yes, it must have been Turner, don’t you think? And he confiscated the sketchbook.’

‘Why not destroy it? And how did they come to be in Ettore’s possession?’

‘My guess is that Margarita suspected something – perhaps Fletcher dropped a hint in his cups; they may have been in the habit of drinking together. Ettore believed that when Byron abandoned her and took up with the Countess Guiccioli, Fletcher stepped into the breach as it were. “Moreover,” Ettore told Uncle Eddie, “the boy has a look of me when I was young and was being chased by all the foreign pederasts in Venice. I think he may have been Margarita’s younger brother.”

‘But that’s beside the point. Somehow she prevailed on Fletcher to hand them over. Perhaps she hoped to use them as material for blackmail. On the other hand, Ettore said, there was a belief in the family that Turner himself became her lover on his later visit to Venice, after Byron’s death, and it may even be that he gave the sketches to her as – what? – a souvenir of both himself and her dear milord. Which would mean the story of the row with Fletcher was apocryphal.’

‘And the other drawings?’ I asked. ‘May I see them? Why have you kept them concealed? They must be worth the Lord knows what.’

‘That was Ettore’s idea. He wanted to provide for his old age, you see. So he gave this single one to my uncle, that he might have it authenticated. But it was winter 1939, remember? Uncle Eddie was reluctant to leave Italy, but he got out at the last minute, in a hurry. When at last he got back to Venice in 1946, Ettore and his wife were both dead, and his son, who was a Communist, knew nothing of any drawings. He’d fought with the Partisans and for that reason either the Fascists or the Germans had ransacked the pensione. There was nothing, he told Uncle Eddie, nothing, it had been an “extermination”. He may have been speaking the truth, or he may have simply disliked or been suspicious of Eddie. He was, as I say, a Communist and therefore a stern moralist. Be that as it may, after more than a hundred years the drawings had vanished, evaporated. Sad, don’t you think?’

‘Sad indeed. And this one? Has it been authenticated?’

‘The experts won’t commit themselves. As for the dealers, they say “yes maybe” if they think I want to sell it and “maybe not” when it’s clear I don’t. To be honest, I don’t much care. Besides, who can tell? It’s agreeable to think that, somewhere, there may yet survive Turner drawings of Byron rogering Margarita Cogni and being ridden by a curly-headed Venetian boy. Rum story, eh?’

Rum indeed. I wondered, and still wonder, what truth there was in it. Perhaps one day some dingy antique shop in a noisome calle will yield the answer. Or perhaps not.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, now considered Britain’s greatest painter, was born in London in 1775. The son of a barber, he showed early talent for drawing and entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 14. At 16 he began touring around Britain recording both buildings and natural scenery, and in 1796 exhibited the first of his characteristic seascapes in oil. His ambition to travel was thwarted for many years by the Napoleonic Wars, although he took advantage of the brief peace of 1802–3 to visit Paris and the Swiss Alps. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 opened up European travel, and two years later Turner visited the battlefield on a tour which took in the Rhineland.

In 1819, at the age of 44, he finally set foot in Italy – ‘Terra Pictura’, as he called it, ‘the land of all beauty’ – where he filled sketchbooks with watercolour studies that capture the brilliance of the Italian light. His stay in Venice, in particular, stimulated a breakthrough in his use of watercolour. Turner returned to Venice in 1833 and 1840, and the city became a recurring theme of his distinctive and astonishing late works, both in oil and watercolour, in which heightened colour and light effects prefigure both the Impressionism and abstraction of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Despite his success and his status as Professor of Perspective and later Painting at the Royal Academy, Turner remained socially awkward. He never married, but had relationships with women whom he kept out of sight. At his death in 1851 he left a vast hoard of paintings and works on paper to the nation, most of which are now held in the Tate collection. The Clore Gallery at Tate Britain is devoted to his work.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 7.

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