Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl

exhibited 1823

In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1454 × 2375 mm
frame: 1718 × 2630 × 138 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner has used Baiae, in the Bay of Naples, as the backdrop here. In an ancient Greek myth, the priestess Cumaean Sibyl asks the god Apollo to let her live for as many years as the grains of sand she could hold in her hand. However, as she did not ask for eternal youth she faded away until only her voice remained. Turner’s landscape reflects the theme of her story. Time has changed the Roman architecture, but the beauty of the natural landscape remains.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

230. [N00505] The Bay of Baiæ, with Apollo and the Sybil Exh. 1823


Canvas, 57 1/4 × 94 (145·5 × 239)

Inscr. ‘Liquidae Placuere Baiae’ on stone lower left.

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (5, ‘Bay of Baiae’ 7'9 1/2" × 4'9 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1823 (77); Turner's gallery 1835; New York, Chicago and Toronto 1946–7 (50, pl. 41); Edinburgh 1968 (4, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (237).

Lit. Ruskin 1843, 1860 and 1857 (1903–12, iii, pp. 243, 492; vii, pp. 421, 431; xiii, pp. 127–8, 131–5); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 228–9, 259, 303; 1877, pp. 103, 416, 437; Hamerton 1879, pp. 198–9; Monkhouse 1879, p. 97; F.M.Redgrave, Richard Redgrave, C.B., R.A., A Memoir compiled from his Diary 1891, pp. 81–2; Bell 1901, pp. 103–4 no. 146; Armstrong 1902, pp. 113–14, 191–2, 218; MacColl 1920, p. 14; Whitley 1930, pp. 42–3; Falk 1938, pp. 131, 224; Davies 1946, p. 185; Clare 1951, pp. 71–2, repr. p. 68; Finberg 1961, pp. 279–80, 340, 347, 354, 485 no. 289; Douglas Hall (ed.), ‘The Tabley House Papers’, The Walpole Society 1960–1962, xxxviii 1962, p. 87; Herrmann 1963, p. 24, colour pl. 10; Kitson 1964, pp. 74–5, repr. in colour p. 31; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 36–8, pl. 64; Lindsay 1966, pp. 72–3, 160, 168, 180, 258; Brill 1969, p. 16, repr.; Gage 1969, p. 103; Reynolds 1969, pp. 119–20, colour pl. 101; Gaunt 1971, p. 7, pls. 15 (detail) and 17 (in colour); Gage 1974, pp. 78–82, pl. 18; Herrmann 1975, pp. 30, 231, colour pl. 89; Topliss 1978, pp. 88–90, pl. 3; Wilton 1979, pp. 149–50, pl. 162; Ziff 1980, p. 169; Paulson 1982, pp. 66, 72, 92, pl. 33; Kitson 1983, p. 12, pl. 17.

The second of the large finished pictures resulting from Turner's first visit to Italy, exhibited with the line:

‘Waft me to sunny Baiæ's shore.’

The Latin inscription on the picture comes from Horace's Ode to Calliope and alludes to the poet's delight in the waters of Baiæ. Though the district had been painted by Wilson, this was the first time it had been used for a subject picture.

Ruskin, in 1857, explains the subject, which comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses Book xiv, as follows: ‘the Cumaean Sibyl, Deiphobe, being in her youth beloved by Apollo, and the god having promised to grant her whatever she would ask, she, taking up a handful of earth, asked that she might live for as many years as there were grains of dust in her hand. She obtained her petition, and Apollo would have given her also perpetual youth, in return for her love; but she denied him, and wasted into the long ages; known at last only by her voice. We are rightly led to think of her here, as the type of the ruined beauty of Italy; foreshadowing, so long ago, her low murmurings of melancholy prophecy, with all the unchanged voices of her sweet waves and mountain echoes.’ In Modern Painters v he described the picture together with Nos. 337 [N00512] and 342 [N00516], as illustrations ‘of the vanity of human life’.

Baiae had been renowned for its luxury under the Romans and, as John Gage has pointed out (1974, pp. 44–7), Turner probably followed his early patron Colt Hoare in drawing the lesson of its decline through profligacy and degeneracy. In addition Part I of Thomson's Liberty 1735, on ‘Ancient and Modern Italy Compared’, a theme taken up by Turner in a number of works (e.g. Nos. 374 and 375, and 378 [N00523] and 379), compares

‘...Baia's viny coast, where peaceful seas,
Fanned by kind zephyrs, ever kiss the shore’

with its later decay (ll. 58–60, 291–2). While the white rabbit alludes to Venus, to whom one of the local temples is dedicated, the snake is symbolic of latent evil.

Turner visited Baiae from Naples in 1819 and there are many drawings in the ‘Gandolfo to Naples’ and ‘Pompeii, Amalfi, Sorrento and Herculaneum’ sketchbooks, including one in the former of the same view as the picture (CLXXXIV-82 verso and 83; see also CLXXXV). In this picture the Claudian panorama that had characterised so many of Turner's previous landscapes is composed in flowing curves rather than the more distinct zones and linear stresses of the earlier examples.

The adjective almost universally applied to this picture by the critics was ‘gorgeous’, as in the Literary Gazette for 3 May 1823, which added that it was ‘like the vision of a poet, rapidly and slightly embodied by a painter.’ The writer in the European Magazine for May 1823 was ‘much annoyed by a cold-blooded critic ... who observed that it was not natural. Natural! No, not in his limited and purblind view of nature. But perfectly natural to the man who is capable of appreciating the value of practical concentration of all that nature occasionally and partially discloses of the rich, the glowing and the splendid.’ According to the Repository of Arts for June 1823 ‘Mr. Turner's answer, and perhaps a sufficient one’ to the ‘somewhat monotonous effect produced by the unclouded richness of the landscape ... may be, that he has painted the landscape as nature and the poets have given it.’ The Literary Gazette, in its second notice of the picture of 17 May 1823, had a slightly different answer: ‘The seductive influence of colours, and the necessity of painting up to the standard of an exhibition, where the spread of gold is more than that of canvas, will prevent, if it does not annihilate, the study of nature ... Though we have no eye for criticism on this splendid piece, it is only when considered as a vision, or a sketch, or as a variety in a large collection, —in one word, it is not painting.’ The only hostile review came from the British Press for 5 May: ‘of late there is a glare, and a meretricious attempt at effect about his [Turner's] pictures, that make them offensive to every man of judgment and good taste. The extravaganza before us is of this cast. It is really little better than a burlesque upon painting. Where, we would ask, did Mr. Turner get this deep blue tint for the water? not from the sky ...’

John Northcote, in a letter to Turner's former patron Sir John Leicester of 20 May 1823, wrote, ‘Our Exhibition at the Royal Academy is the very worst I have seen for many years past. Turner has an outrageous Landscape with all the colours of the Rainbow in it’.

By 1835, when the picture was on view in Turner's gallery, at least one critic had got over his initial shock. The Spectator for 26 April 1835 wrote, ‘His picture of Baiae, exhibited two or three seasons ago [sic], and which was considered at the time one of his most garish paintings, now exhibits only an allowable heightening of the hues of nature, to suit the colouring of poetic fancy.’

A more direct attack on the picture's lack of verisimilitude was George Jones's, as retailed by Thornbury: ‘One day Mr. G. Jones, having discussed Turner's picture of the “Bay of Baiae” with a traveller who had recently been there, was surprised to find that half the scene was Turner's sheer invention; upon which, in fun, Mr. Jones wrote on the frame, ‘SPLENDIDE MENDAX’. Turner saw it, and laughed. His friend told him that where he had planted some hills with vineyards, there was nothing in reality but a few dry sticks. Turner smiled, and said it was all there, and that all poets were liars. The inscription remained on the frame of the picture for years; Turner never removed it.’

In Modern Painters i Ruskin at first dismissed this work as one of the category of what he called ‘nonsense pictures’: ‘the Bay of Baiae is encumbered with material, it contains ten times as much as is necessary to a good picture, and yet is so crude in colour as to look unfinished’. Later in the same volume however he quotes it as an example of the ‘noble works’ in which Turner's management of the foreground unifies an abundance ‘so deep and various, that the mind, according to its own temper at the time of seeing, perceives some new series of truths ...’

In 1856 Ruskin commented on the condition of the painting: ‘Partly, the deadness of effect is owing to change in the colour; many of the upper glazings, as in the dress of Apollo, and in the tops of the pine-trees, have cracked and chilled; what was once golden has become brown; many violet and rose tints have vanished from the distant hills, and the blue of the sea has become pale.’ He added in a footnote, ‘I do not at present express any opinion as to the degree in which these changes have been advanced or arrested by the processes to which the pictures have recently been subjected, since the light in which they are placed does not permit a sufficient examination of them to warrant any such expression.’

Richard Redgrave picked out The Bay of Baiae as an example of the change caused by the constantly patched plaster in Turner's gallery when he saw it following Turner's death: ‘Ah! what a wreck it was, compared with the sunny paradise I remembered! The canvas was hanging over the frame at the bottom like a bag, and when Maclise and I pressed against it, we found that this was occasioned by the mortar from the ceiling which had fallen behind it, and was piled up between the stretcher and the canvas.’

It is difficult to assess today how much the appearance of this picture may have changed; it has certainly been restored a number of times. There are damages along the edges and extensive cleavage, especially in the upper right-hand area of the sky.

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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