Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Interior of a Theatre, Venice


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 224 × 293 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 18

Technique and condition

This work by Turner is a watercolour and gouache painted sketch on a poor quality brown wove paper. Titled Interior of a Theatre this work appears to be a quick, impression that is made up with a combination of both fluid and dry scratchy marks. The brush strokes seem quite hurried and loose, giving a very sketchy feel to this work.

The overall condition of this work is not good. Having been exposed at some point to significant moisture, there are some quite noticeable dark tide lines over large areas of the support, particularly in the lower half. These are quite disfiguring and certainly confuse the image. The lead white pigment has also degraded having significantly oxidised leaving only a suggestion that it was once white. In some areas the white has disappeared completely leaving a darkish mark with a darker tide line. The only 'white' that remains, perhaps where the paint was applied thicker, appears now as only a grainy wash.

Jo Gracey
April 2001

Catalogue entry

This summary but readily intelligible, largely monochrome study shows the interior of a Venetian theatre, as tentatively suggested by Finberg,1 with the stage and its proscenium to the right, flanked by tiers of boxes to the left, evoked largely in pale washes of white against the warmth of the buff paper, with dark accents for the audience in the foreground and a single stroke of red applied over a white base for one of the figures on the stage. As Lindsay Stainton has noted, the ‘dark-toned paper and sweeping highlights of opaque bodycolour are perfectly suited to such subjects, which Turner clearly found exciting’.2 Other works in this grouping have been connected with theatrical performances or dramatic literary subjects with varying degrees of likelihood (see Tate D32223, D32228, D32231, D32236, D32239; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 4, 9, 12, 17, 20).3
Andrew Wilton, noting Turner’s love of music and lack of Italian, has suggested that he might have been more appreciative of an opera performance than a play in that language.4 Ian Warrell has detailed the venues open in the late summer of 1840, noting that the famous Fenice opera house only operated during the winter, leaving the San Samuele, Apollo and Malibran theatres as possibilities.5 He has suggested that the conspicuous red of the distant figure might indicate ‘something bloody’, perhaps relating to Rossini’s opera Otello at the Malibran on 28 August, or part of Donizetti’s dramatic opera Belisario at the San Samuele on the following night.6 See under D32228 and D32236, already noted, for possible links to Shakespeare’s Othello (subtitled ‘the Moor of Venice’).
Compare a detailed drawing of about 1796 showing the interior of London’s King’s Theatre, Haymarket (Tate D01899; Turner Bequest XLIV W), and a rapid study in the 1832 Paris and Environs sketchbook showing the Paris Operá from the auditorium, presumably on the occasion of a performance (Tate D24179; Turner Bequest CCLVII 7). Likely fortuitously, the exterior of the Fenice appears in a pencil drawing of the adjacent canals in the 1840 Venice and Botzen sketchbook (Tate D31826; Turner Bequest CCCXIII 18a).
See Finberg 1909, II, p.1027, and Finberg 1930, p.176.
Stainton 1985, p.47.
See Wilton 1974, p.157, Wilton 1975, p.146, Powell 1984, pp.324, 529 note 107, Stainton 1985, p.47, and Powell 1987, pp.153, 207 note 83, each mentioning various of these specifically.
See Wilton 1983, p.288.
See Warrell 2003, pp.132–3.
Ibid., p.133.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 10) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
See ibid., section 9; see also section 11.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

Read full Catalogue entry

You might like

In the shop