Joseph Mallord William Turner

Forum Romanum, for Mr Soane’s Museum

exhibited 1826

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1457 × 2363 mm
frame: 1762 × 2740 × 156 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

One of the most important locations in Rome is the Forum, an area of ruined temples and monuments. It represents the heart of the ancient city. Over the centuries, the Forum had been allowed to decay but by the 19th century, archaeologists were uncovering its remains. This painting, designed for the architect Sir John Soane, captures the view looking towards the Capitoline Hill. On the left is the Arch of Titus, and on the right, the vaults of the Basilica of Constantine.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

233. [N00504] Forum Romanum, for Mr Soane's Museum Exh. 1826


Canvas, 57 3/8 × 93 (145·5 × 237·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (63, ‘Rome’ 7'10" × 4'10"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1826 (132); R.A., Italian Art and Britain January–March 1960 (215); R.A. 1974–5 (238).

Lit. Ruskin 1843 (1903–12, iii, p. 248); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 303; 1877, p. 437; Bell 1901, pp. 105–6 no. 149; Armstrong 1902, p. 228; MacColl 1920, pp. 13–14; Davis 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 196, 486 no. 308; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 36, pl. 63; Gowing 1966, p. 21; Brill 1969, p. 16, repr.; Adele M. Holcomb, ‘A Neglected Classical Phase of Turner's Art: his Vignettes to Roger's Italy’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes xxxii 1969, p. 408, pl. 71c; Reynolds 1969, p. 120; Wilton 1979, p. 150, pl. 163; Gage 1980, pp. 98–9, 101–2.

Painted, as shown by the title in the R.A. catalogue, for Turner's fellow-Academician the architect Sir John Soane (1753–1837). Soane designed three adjacent houses in Lincoln's Inn Fields and moved from no. 12 to the central one, no. 13 in 1813, turning it also into a setting for his considerable collection of works of art, particularly after the death of his wife in 1815. In 1833 he obtained a private Act of Parliament setting up the Museum under a body of trustees. The space is very constricted and it seems to have been because of this that Soane did not in fact take the picture. On 1 May 1826, shortly before the opening of the R.A. exhibition, Turner wrote to Soane to tell him that the price of the picture was 500 guineas ‘if you like what I have done, for without your intire approval I, or rather let me say we, shall not be happy’. Early in July, according to a note by Soane attached to Turner's reply now in the Soane Museum, Soane wrote to Turner saying that ‘the picture did not suit the place or the place the picture but that if the small picture in the present exhibition came within my grasp, I should like to possess it’. Turner had obviously realised that there might be some difficulty over the size but did not argue the point in his reply: ‘As there appears by note of this morning some kind of disaprobation of my Picture it is needless to me to say how I intended to make its oversize accomodate to the place’. He goes on to say that the small pictures in the exhibition, Nos. 234 and 235, were already bespoke. On 9 July Soane sent Turner a draft for the 500 guineas in payment for the picture but asked that ‘you will have the goodness to take charge of the picture until I can find a suitable place for it or a purchaser’. The letter and draft however are still at the Soane Museum; presumably Turner did not hold his old friend to their bargain and just took the picture back. Soane later acquired one of Turner's standard 3 × 4 ft canvases, Admiral Van Tromp's Barge at the Entrance of the Texel, 1645, exhibited at the R.A. in 1831 (No. 339).

This, the third of the large pictures resulting from Turner's first visit to Italy in 1819, concentrates on the monuments of Ancient Rome and so would have had a particular interest for Soane. Turner's respect for Soane's expertise is reflected in his letter of 1 May 1826: ‘I have altered the inscription upon the Arch of Titus and it is said to be now quite right’. The inscription reads, ‘SENATVS / POPVLVSQVE . ROMANVS / DIVO . TITODIVI . VESPASIANI.F. / VESPASIANO . AVGVSTO’.

There is a composition sketch from a slightly different view in the ‘Small Roman C[olour] Studies’ sketchbook (CXC-1) and another fairly similar view in the ‘Rome: C[olour] Studies’ sketchbook (CLXXXIX-43; repr. Wilkinson 1975, p. 18).

In this painting Turner stresses the monumental quality of the Arch of Titus and the Basilica of Constantine on the right by the close view point and consequent foreshortening, and even more by the massive arch which frames the picture at the top. The contrast between the gravitas of this picture and the lush curvilinear composition of Bay of Baiae (No. 230 [N00505]) was perhaps deliberate. However, though there are contrasts of light and shade, the whole painting glows with colour, as the critic of the Literary Gazette for 13 May 1826 noted, not altogether approvingly: ‘The artist, we can readily perceive, has combated a very difficult quality of art, in giving solidity without strong and violent opposition of light and shade ... Mr. Turner ... seems to have sworn fidelity to the Yellow Dwarf, if he has not identified himself with that important necromancer.’

Some letters have been inscribed down the left-hand edge near the bottom, scratched into the wet paint, some of it apparently added specially in small squares. They seem to read ‘A [?] GM [?] SRMPA’, but have not yet been satisfactorily explained.

Adele Holcomb has pointed out how Turner later used elements from this composition for the illustration of The Roman Forum in Rogers' Italy, 1830 (repr. with related watercolour and sketches, op. cit., pls. 70a, b, c and e).

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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