The subject of this slight sketch is unknown. It appears to show a classical townscape from a low viewpoint beside a river, with a volcano erupting menacingly beyond. The general setting is reminiscent of Claude Lorrain’s seaport paintings (see the Introduction to this section), although the subject is somewhat less serene. Turner had exhibited a striking nocturnal painting of The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th of April, 1812, from a Sketch Taken at the Time by Hugh P. Keane, Esqre in 1815 (University of Liverpool),1 and made watercolours showing the Bay of Naples (Vesuvius Angry) (Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead)2 and the Eruption of Vesuvius (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven)3 in 1817.
On his first visit to Italy, he had witnessed Vesuvius gently smoking; see for example a partially coloured view in the Naples: Rome. C. Studies sketchbook (Tate D16106; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 18), and even climbed its slopes, as recorded in the Gandolfo to Naples sketchbook (Tate D15645; Turner Bequest CLXXXIV 44 a). It is shown towering over the ruins of Pompeii, famously destroyed and buried in 79 AD, in the Pompeii, Amalfi, &c., sketchbook (Tate D15745, D15771–D15773, D15781; Turner Bequest CLXXXV 4a, 18a, 19, 19a, 23a).
John Martin (1789–1854) had exhibited a large and typically spectacular painting of The Destruction of Pompei [sic] and Herculaneum at London’s Egyptian Hall in 1822 (Tate N00793). Turner sometimes undertook his own versions of rival’s subjects, and perhaps this is such a case, although nothing is known to have come of the idea roughly set out here on an old envelope, dated according to the 1824 postmark on the other side (Tate D40391), where there are also some watercolour tests. The detail of arches or vaulting below the main drawing perhaps relate to the distant bridge.
The sheet bears the watermark of William Gater, who operated at West End Mill, South Stoneham, Hampshire.1 A piece was torn away from the lower edge and left adhering to the wax seal at the top centre when the envelope was opened.
See Peter Bower, Turner’s Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1787–1820, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.96 note 1.