Technique and condition
This sketch is on white wove paper with a Whatman watermark and date of 1816. The composition has been built up with localised washes of a single pure colour applied to dry paper, with any initial pencil drawing. Turner may have avoided his common technique of soaking the paper first, which would enable a very even or graded wash to be created, because the sheet formed part of a sketchbook when he was using it.
The range of colours is limited: Prussian blue, or vermilion for the pink washes, in combination make up the distant mountains. Yellow ochre was used for the pale yellow foreground, and applied over the pink and blue washes at a later stage of development, to create the nearer mountains. Pure Prussian blue was used for the water. More intense shades, as in the water, were achieved by building up several successive washes of the same colour.
Examination at moderate magnification, up to x40, made it clear that the blue, pink and yellow colours were each painted using a single pigment. The identifications of these materials were in fact confirmed by removed tiny samples the size of a pin-point, and placing them in the sample chamber of a scanning electron microscope, under an X-ray beam. This beam interacts with the elements that make up each pigment, and the resulting spectrum makes it possible to work out which elements are present. Since it is already known that the washes are pure colours, it is then possible to work out exactly which pigment was used in each case. Visual identifications of these materials can then be made on other watercolours, when it is already known from examination at moderate magnification that the wash consists of a pure pigment and not a mixture. In a complex and finished watercolour with multiple overlying washes, it would be foolish to attempt such visual identification.
The view is south-south-east to the wooded promontory of Bellagio, nearly five miles across Lake Como, and is recognisable from Menaggio’s small stone harbour off Via Giuseppe Mazzini. Tate D15252 (Turner Bequest CLXXXI 2), originally bound consecutively, is a less developed variant, but the alignments suggest that the viewpoint is much the same in each. The difference appears to be in the treatment of the sky and distant mountains, with this work suggesting full afternoon sunshine, while D15252 may show the light fading towards sunset.
While the subject has long been recognised as showing Lake Como,1 its Menaggio viewpoint was established by Ian Warrell.2 There is a pencil drawing in the smaller contemporary Turin, Como, Lugarno, Maggiore sketchbook (Tate D14275; Turner Bequest CLXXIV 67a) with figures and boats in the foreground which appears to relate directly, although Nicola Moorby suggests in its catalogue entry that ‘Turner’s viewpoint appears to be the eastern shore of the western branch of the lake [south of Menaggio], looking north towards Bellagio with the Alps beyond’. The Turin, Como, Lugarno, Maggiore book includes views of Turin, the Italian Lakes and Borromean islands, and the route to the Simplon Pass in the Swiss Alps, as Turner took a major detour to explore new ground during his journey eastwards across northern Italy towards Venice. It contains other views in the vicinity of Menaggio, the furthest north he reached along the shores of the lake before turning west for Lake Lugano (Tate D14276–D14279; Turner Bequest CLXXIV 68–69a).3
Whether made on the spot or some time later from a combination of memory and consultation of the pencil sketch,4 the two ‘ravishing’5 Como views were likely to have been the first watercolours Turner made in Italy, although Warrell has suggested they may have been preceded by a Milan subject (D15253; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 3).6 Andrew Wilton has remarked: ‘His initial colour experiments in Italy show that he was able to respond freshly to what he found’, with ‘a delicacy in the rendering of detail, and ... a brilliancy in the suggestion of light, that convince us that Turner knew exactly how to manage the new scenery with which he was confronted’.7
See Finberg 1909, I, p.535.
See Warrell 2003, caption to fig.15.
See Powell 2003, p.31.
See Warrell 1998, p.154.
Warrell 2003, p.88.
Warrell 2008, p.67 note 1.
Wilton 1979, p.142; see also Stainton 1982, p.19, Wilton 1983, p.218, Stainton 1985, p.41, Wilton 1988, p.70, Perkins 1990, p.36, and Brown 2002, pp.21, 23, 110.
Not in Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979; see Warrell 1998, p.154 no.264, pl.47 (colour).
Angela Madesani, Hiroyuki Masuyama: After J.M.W. Turner – Turner’s Journey from London to Venice/After J.M.W. Turner – Il viaggio di Turner da Londra a Venezia, exhibition catalogue, Studio la Città, Verona 2008, reproduced in colour p.27, as ‘Lake Como 1819’, 2008.