Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Moonlit Canal through a Gothic Arcade, Venice


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Chalk, gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 307 × 239 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 27

Display caption

In this work Turner uses rapid touches of bodycolour to create reflections in the dark water of the canal. Several drawings in this series on brown paper make dramatic use of arches to frame buildings. Here the arch has been used as a silhouette against the moonlit sky.

This work has been exposed to light for long periods of time, causing the paper to change colour. The original colour can be seen at the edges of the sheet, which have been protected from the light.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

This centralised composition leads through the architectural framework of a shadowy Gothic arcade onto a relatively brightly lit scene with distant buildings against a pale sky. The low key of the colour suggests that moonlight is likely intended, although the contrast between the largely bare red-brown paper and the painted areas has been exaggerated owing to irreversible light damage (see the technical notes below). The scene is likely an invention; the bright horizontal strokes towards the bottom centre seem to evoke ripples on a canal,1 as if seen from the open porch of a palazzo, with what may be the silhouette of a gondola beyond. There seems to be a ghostly figure or figures, one possibly lying prone, picked out in chalk in the left foreground.
Numerous contemporary Venetian studies on toned papers use the framing device of an arch or arcade to concentrate attention on real or imagined spaces beyond, whether inside or outside and by day or night, including: Tate D32226, D32227, D32239, D32245, D32247, D32252, D32255, D32257, D36089 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 7, 8, 20, 26, 28, CCCXIX 4, 7, 9, CCCLXIV 243).2 See also the centralised study of the Bridge of Sighs above a starlit canal in the present grouping (D32253; CCCXIX 5).
Ian Warrell has noted the possible confusion between this sheet and other Venice subjects in relation to the early Loan Collections from the Turner Bequest and corresponding entries in Finberg’s 1909 Inventory. He has suggested that the supposed Turner Bequest CCCXVII 3, ‘The Ducal Palace’, listed there as no.98 in the second selection3 but noted as missing since the 1930s, may be a duplication of Tate D32247 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 28) or this work, called ‘Moonlight’ by Finberg and listed by him as no.103 in the First Loan Collection.4 Confusingly, Finberg also gave the same exhibition history to ‘Moonlight; Venice’ (D32222; CCCXVIII 3),5 a scene with a gondola on open water included in the present grouping, and in 1930 listed ‘cccxviii. ... 27’ as ‘Duplicate entr[y], now corrected’.
See Stainton 1985, p.48.
See also Warrell 2003, pp.126, 263 note 18.
Finberg 1909, II, p.1022.
See Warrell 1991, pp.41, 45, 47–8; see also Warrell 2003, p.264 note 8.
Finberg 1909, II, p.1026.
See Stainton 1985, p.48.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 9) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also see also Peter Bower, Turner’s Later Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820–1851, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.111 under no.64; and Warrell 2003, p.259, sections 10 and 11, for other likely Italian (possibly Fabriano) brown papers.
Ibid., section 9.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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