Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Study of Firelight, Perhaps in a Glass Workshop, Venice


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 4

Catalogue entry

The tentative description of this subject as ‘Interior of Theatre (?)’ in Finberg’s 1909 Inventory was annotated by the Turner scholar C.F. Bell: ‘no A stage out of doors’.1 This idea was adopted by Finberg and later commentators,2 sometimes with reference to Tate D32237 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 18), an 1840 colour study on buff paper which is accepted as showing the interior of a conventional Venetian theatre.3 Technically similar figure scenes have also been linked with theatrical or literary subjects (Tate D32236, D32239; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 17, 20). In this instance, the swirling white forms in the right foreground could presumably be taken as members of the audience (compare D32237; see also Tate D32231 and D32244; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 12, 25), implying a substantial scale.
While retaining the theatrical connection, Lindsay Stainton called this ‘one of the more mysterious in the series; a blaze of vermilion on the left suggests a fire’.4 Ian Warrell has questioned this interpretation, noting that compared to the ‘gaily decorated theatres’ of Venice, the ‘stark lines’ of what might be taken as the illuminated proscenium on the right would appear ‘more modern’5 than seems feasible. While noting the alternative of an ‘improvised production in the Public Gardens’, he has proposed that Turner rather shows ‘a workshop of some kind, perhaps one in which glass was being manufactured. This would explain the boxed-in area which may represent the white heat of a furnace. Furthermore, the intensity of the red flames would be alarming outside such a context’. Warrell has compared the strength and brightness of these elements with those of the foundry in Turner’s oil painting The Hero of a Hundred Fights (Tate N00551),6 exhibited in 1847,7 albeit reworked over an originally much darker industrial interior apparently of the 1800s.
While not fully accounting for the undefined shapes in the foreground, the reading of the scene as a workshop is perhaps the most satisfactory, making it more comparable with Tate D32240 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 21), a contemporary study with loosely rendered objects catching the light in a shadowy interior, likely a wine shop. At any event, the subject, like other 1840 Venice interiors and figure scenes, show Turner’s continued interest in chiaroscuro effects and rich colours owing much not only to Venetian art but to a long-standing admiration for Rembrandt,8 as noted in the Introduction to this subsection.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1026.
See Finberg 1930, p.175, Reynolds 1969, caption to pl.145, Herrmann 1970, p.[22], Sillevis, Jonker and Visser 1978, p.111, Gage and de Gradowska 1979, p.[25], Stainton and Wilton 1983, p.92, Wilton 1987, p.186, and Wilton 2006, p.167.
See Wilton 1974, p.157, Wilton 1975, p.146, Powell 1984, pp.324, 529 note 107, and Powell 1987, pp.153, 207 note 83.
Stainton 1985, p.45.
Warrell 2003, p.133.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.271–2 no.427, pl.432 (colour).
Warrell 2003, p.133.
See Wilton 1987, p.186.
Brown 1991, p.46.
Bate 1991, p.5.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 11) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also sections 9 and 10.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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