Joseph Mallord William Turner

Music in the White Library


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 140 × 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCXLIV 37

Technique and condition

In this study the blue wove paper, typical of that used by Turner in his middle years, has been used as the background colour for one wall and the ceiling. It makes an equally significant optical contribution to all other areas as well, but has been so skilfully integrated that it mostly ‘reads’ as if it were light blue applied paint. The colours were applied very freely and rapidly, without even sketchy initial drawing.
This work is painted in small, rapid strokes of watercolour washes, and larger areas of gouache made by mixing lead white and the same range of pigments. None of the figures is detailed – indeed, the three seated nearest to the fireplace on the red wall are indicated by only a few small but telling strokes of flesh paint, with white gouache added to indicate highlights in their dress – yet they form a coherent impression of a group of individuals who could be counted readily.
All the gouache is made from lead white, a very opaque white pigment used by all oil painters at this period. Turner was an early user of lead white in gouache, and by the middle of the nineteenth century other artists were also using it regularly in this way. Lead white in scanty amounts of gum water as Turner used it, can easily discolour to a speckled or solid dark brown when it reacts with hydrogen sulphide gas, a common urban pollutant during the nineteenth century. Even minor or patchy discolouration would make this study distracting and difficult to understand, but here the gouache is in excellent condition. Nor have there been any tiny losses of material to reveal the blue paper beneath, which has occurred in quite a number of works where Turner used this material.
X-radiography of the paper indicates the presence of both the lead white, and vermilion. The vermilion is used full strength for the red wall, which makes it look opaque though it is used here as a true watercolour wash, and in the gouache for flesh tones. Vermilion is made from mercuric sulphide, and mercury is almost as X-ray opaque an element as lead. Chrome yellow, a pigment favoured by Turner at this period, would also show up readily in an X-radiograph due to its lead content, but was not found here. Instead he used yellow ochre and brown earth pigments, and their manufactured equivalent Mars orange for the orange shades, as well as a pure black pigment. The blue of the keyboard player’s dress is painted in ultramarine, a good choice since this pigment is sufficiently red in tone and brightly coloured when applied in gum water to contrast with the other blue areas represented by the blue paper.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
March 2011

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