Joseph Mallord William Turner

Columbus Setting Sail, for Rogers’s ‘Poems’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite, watercolour and pen and ink on paper
Support: 238 × 309 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 189

Catalogue entry

This is one of seven illustrations that Turner produced for ‘The Voyage of Columbus’, a miniature epic poem which is the final work in the published volume of Rogers’s Poems (for a brief description of the poem, see Tate D27705; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 188). The seven vignettes in order of their appearance in Rogers’s text are: Tate D27705, D27706, D27714, D27707, D27708, D27719, D27709; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 188, 189, 197, 190, 191, 202, 192.
This illustration, Columbus Setting Sail appears as the head-piece to Canto I of ‘The Voyage of Columbus’.1 Like all of the ‘Columbus’ series, it was engraved by Edward Goodall.2 Although the scene does not illustrate a specific passage in Rogers’s text, it aptly complements the opening lines, which celebrate the hero and his courageous, legendary voyage:
Say who, when age on age had rolled away,
And still, as sunk the golden Orb of day,
The seaman watched him, while he lingered here,
With many a wish to follow, many a fear,
Who the great secret of the Deep possessed,
And, issuing through the portals of the West,
Fearless, resolved, with every sail unfurled,
Planted his standard in the Unknown World?
Him could not I exalt – by Heaven designed
To lift the veil that covered half mankind!
(Poems, pp.227–8)
Turner’s vignette shows Columbus and his three ships setting sail from Palos, in the Gulf of Cadiz. The quay is filled with countless figures, waving as the ships pull away. The viewer’s attention is caught in particular by the foreground group of a mother and two sons, watching the departing vessels, presumably carrying the father on board. Rogers does not describe the scene in his poem and Jan Piggott has suggested that Turner probably based the composition upon an engraving of Palos that appeared in Washington Irving’s Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831), although he embellished and enlivened the scene significantly.3 The billowing sails of the three ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, which are especially visible in the engraving, suggest an auspicious start for the long voyage to come.
Samuel Rogers, Poems, London 1834, p.227.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.399. There are two impressions in Tate’s collection (T05125 and T06171).
Piggott 1993, p.42.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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