Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Stormy Landscape with an Obelisk or Tower above a Classical Portico


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 224 × 304 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 252

Catalogue entry

Finberg suggested that this subject, then simply called ‘The obelisk’, might be a ‘design for so-called “Little Liber.”’1 The present title takes account of the numerous permutations of the titles under which it has since been exhibited and published. Gerald Wilkinson has observed: ‘The tower is obviously attached to a classical portico and, though disproportionately large, cannot properly be called an obelisk. The general layout agrees with looking north to St John’s Wood Church, the open space of Regent’s Park on the right – not that it matters, of course.’2 This suggestion is ingenious, though any similarity is likely fortuitous; likewise Eric Shanes has made a passing comparison with a view of St John the Baptist’s Church, Buxton, in the Worcester and Shrewsbury sketchbook (Tate D22254; Turner Bequest CCXXXIX 56a), but as this was used in 1830 a link must be disregarded.
Andrew Wilton has noted that there ‘seems to be no possible identification for this strange landscape’ which may include the ‘ruins of a classical temple’,3 and has compared it with the atmosphere of the stormy ‘Little Liber’ mezzotint engravings Catania, Sicily4 and Paestum;5 see the watercolour study for the latter (Tate D36070; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 224). He has also associated the present composition with the ‘Little Liber’ Bridge and Monument, for which the direct watercolour source is Tate D17193 (Turner Bequest CXCVII C), even giving it the same title at one stage.6
Wilton has compared the ‘thick, rich application ... and the palette of inky blues’ with that in ‘Little Liber’-type works such as a study related to Shields Lighthouse (Tate D25314; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 192).7 The ghostly form of the building(s) has been lifted out of the dark surrounding washes, and it and the clouds to the right show a pattern of palm prints imparting a velvety effect something like the dense cross-hatched tones of mezzotint. The same improvised technique is apparent in Tate D25315 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 193) in this subsection.
Finberg 1909, II, p.833.
Wilkinson 1975, p.118.
Wilton 1977, p.39.
See Dupret 1989, p.43 ill.7.
See Wilton 1974, p.95.
Wilton 1979, p.390; see also Wilton 1983, pp.230, 232; for discussion see Dupret 1989, p.42.
Wilton 1977, p.39.

Matthew Imms
September 2016

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