Joseph Mallord William Turner

Lecture Diagram 65: Interior of a Prison


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 487 × 687 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCV 120

Display caption

This drawing is one of a series which Turner made to illustrate the lectures he delivered as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, a post held between 1807 and 1828. The influence of Piranesi's etchings is at its most pronounced here. The Italian printmaker's fantastical images of the imposing architecture of ancient Rome became very popular in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth century, and Turner had been engaged to copy some examples during the mid-1790s. In a particularly remarkable series,'I Carceri' (The Prisons), Piranesi grimly depicted the interiors of imaginary prisons. Here Turner adapted this Sublime genre to demonstrate the behaviour of shadows to his audience.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Diagram 65 is one of three views of a prison interior prepared by Turner for his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, from an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) in his Prima Parte de Architettura e Prospettive (1743, pl.2); see also Diagrams 66 and 75 (Tate D17091, D17099; Turner Bequest CXCV 121, 128). They are associated by Maurice Davies with a large group of diagrams illustrating the production of shadows; see note to Diagram 60 (Tate D17085; Turner Bequest CXCV 115). Turner refers to a ‘prison drawing’ in a manuscript titled ‘Lecture upon light, shade and reflexes’1 but it is not clear which one this is.
Piranesi’s images of fantastic prisons exerted a powerful influence on the Romantic imagination, the writer Thomas De Quincey even attributing them to the use of opium – a supposition now generally rejected. In fact, they combined elements familiar from Roman baroque stage design with Piranesi’s interest in the possibilities of masonry engineering and construction, the result of his early training in Venice. Turner, along with his early friend Thomas Girtin, is known to have studied or copied works by Piranesi in the collection of John Henderson; a copy attributed to Turner of the famous ‘Dark Prison’ (Carcere oscura con antenna nel supplizio de’ malfatori) is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.2 While preparing his Academy lectures, Turner’s interest was refreshed by his friend John Soane, the Professor of Architecture, with whom he shared a critical admiration for the Venetian artist. As well as the prisons, Turner referred to his prints of Roman columns and probably to drawings by him of the Temple of Neptune at Paestum belonging to Soane for his lecture illustrations (Tate D17123, D17124, D17072; Turner Bequest CXCV 152, 153, 102).
Private collection. See Davies 1992, p.105 note 44.
Joseph R. Goldyne ed., J.M.W. Turner: Works on Paper from American Collections, exhibition catalogue, University Art Museum, Berkeley, California 1975, p.72 no 4 reproduced; John Wilton-Ely, Piranesi, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1978, p.84 no.215.
Blank, save for an inscription in red watercolour ‘65’ top left and by an unknown hand in pencil ‘115’ bottom left

Andrea Fredericksen
June 2004

Supported by The Samuel H. Kress Foundation

Revised by David Blayney Brown
April 2012

Read full Catalogue entry


You might like

In the shop