Joseph Mallord William Turner

?The Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), Venice, with Figures


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 155 × 238 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXIX 3

Technique and condition

This watercolour and gouache painting is executed on a sheet of medium weight, brown coloured, wove paper. This is a swiftly executed sketch. The image covers the whole of the recto but is denser in some areas than in others. Some areas are extremely fluid in style; other areas have fairly dry paint application, particularly the application of white gouache in the centre of the image. Layers have been built up in an informal fashion. This work is in quite good condition with the colours retaining much of their vibrancy. The dark brown colour of the paper has been used to great effect to create the atmosphere of this scene.
Prior to conservation on 2008 there was severe cockling across entire sheet. There is a crease along the very edge of the right-hand side of the recto where the sheet on this side was torn along. This suggests that it was the right-hand side of the sheet which was attached to the sketchbook; there is also a small ingrained crease in the top right-hand quarter of the recto, this appears to have been caused during the paper manufacturing process, when the sheet was hung up to dry.
In the top left hand corner of the verso there is a line of black paint and a small dark blue speck of paint below it: both are probably in watercolour medium.

Helen Evans
August 2009

Catalogue entry

It is difficult to make out the intended subject of this loose albeit atmospheric scene, which is little more than a ‘beginning’. The only published commentator, Finberg confidently identified the setting as the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square),1 while the Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s 1909 Inventory entry (‘The Piazza, with figures’): ‘by night. Nondescript’.2
The work is thus included in the present grouping of Piazza and Piazzetta views by default. There appear to be two silhouetted figures at the centre, possibly climbing steps to a raised area, illuminated by strong raking light from the right. The dim background evokes monumental architectural forms, while the fresh blue and white suggests moonlight, likely in an outdoor setting, although the setting might also be the interior of a large church. Compare Tate D32233 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 14) in this subset, which has a clearer claim as a Piazza scene with figures, but also some of those on brown papers grouped as darkened interiors and figure scenes, such as D32228, D32237 or D32244 (CCCXVIII 9, 18, 25).
See Finberg 1909, II, p.1028, and Finberg 1930, p.176.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1028.
Technical notes:
The unfinished edge of the original sheet from which this portion was torn is evident at the right. This is one of numerous 1840 Venice works Ian Warrell has noted as being on ‘Red-brown paper made at Cartieri Pietro Milani Mill, Fabriano, with a watermark showing the letter “M” accompanied by laurel leaves:1 Tate D32224, D32227, D32230, D32238–D32241, D32245–D32246, D32248, D32251, D32254 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 5, 8, 11, 19–22, 26, 27, 29, CCCXIX 3, 6). As Warrell has observed; the support ‘seems to be quite absorbent, so that the colours penetrate through to the back of the sheet’.2
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 9) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also Bower 1999, p.111 under no.64, 112; and Warrell 2003, p.259, sections 10 and 11, for other likely Italian (possibly Fabriano) brown papers.
Ibid., section 9.
Blank; closed mount; Finberg recorded Turner’s inscription in ink: ‘1’.1 For Turner’s various annotations to 1840 Venice sheets, see the overall Introduction to the tour.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

See Finberg 1909, II, p.1028.

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