Joseph Mallord William Turner

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage - Italy

exhibited 1832

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1422 × 2483 mm
frame: 1920 × 3000 × 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832. It was so popular that people were advised to visit it as soon as the gallery opened to avoid crowds. One critic at the time said, ‘This is one of the noblest landscapes of our gifted artist; it has all the poetry of his best pictures, with all the true colouring of his less imaginative compositions.’ The title of this painting refers to Lord Byron’s long, epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. ‘Childe’ is an ancient title for the son of a nobleman. Turner showed his painting with these lines from Byron’s poem:
 … and now, fair Italy!
Thou are the garden of the world…
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.’

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

342. [N00516] Childe Harold's Pilgrimage—Italy Exh. 1832


Canvas, 56 × 97 3/4 (142 × 248)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (51, ‘Childe Harolds Pilgrimage’ 8'3 1/2 × 4'9"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1914.

Exh. R.A. 1832 (70); Tate Gallery 1959 (350); Edinburgh 1968 (10); Bibliotheque Nationale Berlioz, Paris 1969 (97); Victoria and Albert Museum Berlioz, 1969 (170, repr.); Victoria and Albert Museum Byron, 1974 (537).

Lit. Ruskin 1860 and 1857 (1903–12, vii, p. 431; xiii, pp. 140–45); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 320–21: 1877, p. 448; Hamerton 1879, pp. 257–61; Monkhouse 1879, pp. 97–8; William Sharp, Life of Joseph Severn, 1892, p. 171; Bell 1901, p. 58–9, 118 no. 177; Armstrong 1902, pp. 114, 220; MacColl 1920, p. 17; Whitley 1930, p. 235; Falk 1938, pp. 143–4; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 334–5, 337, 340, 493 no. 377; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 12, 38, colour pl. xvi; Lindsay 1966, p. 180; Gage 1968, p. 682, repr. p. 683 fig. 50; Reynolds 1969, p. 160; Watson 1971, pp. 114–15; Topliss 1978, p. 90, pl. 4; Kitson 1983, p. 13.

Exhibited in 1832 with the lines:

‘—and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world.
Even in thy desert what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes' fertility:
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.’

Lord Byron, Canto 4.

The subject may have been partly influenced by the exhibition at the R.A. in 1829 of Eastlake's Lord Byron's Dream, painted in 1827 and now in the Tate Gallery.

The vase among the still-life detail in the left foreground was originally stuck on as a piece of paper and subsequently painted over. The picture was quoted by Ruskin, in his Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House, as an example of the decay he saw as having occurred in many of Turner's works. ‘It was, once, quite the loveliest work of the second period, but is now a mere wreck. The fates by which Turner's later pictures perish are as various as they are cruel; and the greater number, whatever care be taken of them, fade into strange consumption and pallid shadowing of their former selves. Their effects were either attained by so light glazing of one colour over another, that the upper colour, in a year or two, sank entirely into its ground, and was seen no more; or else, by the stirring and kneading together of colours chemically discordant, which gathered into angry spots; or else, by laying on liquid tints with too much vehicle in them, which cracked as they dried; or solid tints, with too little vehicle in them, which dried into powder and fell off; or painting the whole on an ill-prepared canvas, from which the picture peeled like the bark from a birch-tree; or using a wrong white, which turned black; or a wrong red, which turned grey; or a wrong yellow, which turned brown. But, one way or another, all but eight or ten of his later pictures have gone to pieces, or worse than pieces—ghosts, which are supposed to be representations of their living presence. This “Childe Harold” is a ghost only. What amount of change has passed upon it may be seen by examining the bridge over the river on the right. There either was, or was intended to be, a drawbridge or wooden bridge over the gaps between the two ruined piers. But either the intention of bridge was painted over, and has penetrated again through the disappearing upper colour; or (which I rather think) the realization of bridge was once there, and is disappearing itself. Either way, the change is fatal; and there is hardly a single passage of colour throughout the cool tones of the picture which has not lost nearly as much. It would be less baneful if all the colours faded together amicably, but they are in a state of perpetual revolution; one staying as it was, and the others blackening or fading about it, and falling out with it, in irregular degrees, never more by any reparation to be reconciled. Nevertheless, even in its present state, all the landscape on this right hand portion of the picture is exquisitely beautiful—founded on faithful reminiscences of the defiles of Narni, and the roots of the Apennines, seen under purple evening light.’

The picture attracted considerable public attention, so much so that the Spectator for 12 May 1832 advised people to get to the Academy when it opened at eight and emulate the reviewer who had ‘sated our senses with its luxuriant richness ... Let the reader first go close up ... and look at the way in which it is painted; and then, turning his back (as one does sometimes to the sun) till he reaches the middle of the room, look round at the streaky, scrambled, unintelligible chaos of colour, and see what a scene has been conjured up before him as if by magic ... Then he will see that this is no meretricious trick of art—no mad freak of genius—no mere exaggeration of splendour—no outrage of propriety—but an imaginative vision of nature seen by the waking mind of genius, and transferred to canvas by the consummate skill of a master-hand. He will feel that it is the poetry of art and of nature combined—that it bears the same relation to the real scene as does Byron's description.’ Other critics were equally full of praise. For the Athenaeum, 12 May, ‘This is one of the noblest landscapes of our gifted artist; it has all the poetry of his best pictures, with all the true colouring of his less imaginative compositions.’

However, elsewhere there was some criticism of Turner's colours, of ‘a constant recurrence of a laky red glow ... fatiguing to the eye’ (Morning Herald, 7 May), or ‘a blaze of king's-yellow and chrome’ with which ‘the sky is cold in comparison’ and which ‘does not harmonize with the scene below’ (Library of the Fine Arts, June 1832). For the Examiner, 1 July, the picture ‘has little to recommend it as a composition. Its colouring is gorgeous, but monotonous’. The Morning Post for 29 May said of the picture that ‘it is more gorgeous than true ... In all the requisites of form in the perspective, grouping, and disposition of the various portions of this varied scene, all the mastery of art is displayed; but in the essential of colour ... dame Nature never wore so meretricious a robe ... Fortunately we have a few Claudes in the Galleries of this country to instruct our untravelled eyes in the true features and hues of the classic land, or we might be borne down by the authoritative assertion of certain pilgrims of art, who would persuade us that there are no colours beyond the Alps but the colours of the rainbow.’ Similarly, the Literary Gazette for 12 May wrote: ‘We look upon this beautiful, but exceedingly artificial picture, as a vision, and cannot for a single instant believe in its reality.’

Finally, for the Morning Chronicle, 7 May, Turner ‘is a sort of Paganini, and performs wonders on a single string—is as astonishing with his chrome, as Paganini is with his chromatics ... But even now, with all his antics, he stands alone in all the higher qualities of landscape painting.’

Richard Westmacott, writing to Joseph Severn in June 1832 about that year's Royal Academy exhibition, exclaimed, ‘Turner is splendid, and excepting in one picture, “The Burning Fiery Furnace!” [No. 346 [N00517]], charming and intelligible. His “Italy” is the most magnificent piece of landscape poetry that was ever conceived. It is like nothing but itself, so I cannot compare it with Claude or any other painter, to help your notion of it.’

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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