Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Vision of Columbus, for Rogers’s ‘Poems’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 232 × 310 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 197

Display caption

The most substantial piece in Samuel Rogers's volume Poems was the 'Voyage of Columbus', a celebratory narrative describing Columbus's arrival in America. In this vignette, Turner's sky serves a symbolic function; its 'baleful light' has been invaded by the marching ranks of armed spirits, the ghostly warriors of Atlantis. For these details, Turner followed Rogers's poem quite closely, but this does not detract from the power of his own invention. The development of this image can be traced from a rough pencil sketch on the back of the finished vignette, which sets out the basic composition, including the fantastic sky. The lower study is one of two colour drafts for this subject.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

This is one of seven illustrations that Turner produced for ‘The Voyage of Columbus’, a miniature epic poem which is the final work in the published volume of Rogers’s Poems (for a brief description of the poem, see Tate D27705; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 188). The seven vignettes in order of their appearance in Rogers’s text are: Tate D27705, D27706, D27714, D27707, D27708, D27719, D27709; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 188, 189, 197, 190, 191, 202, 192.
Like all of the ‘Columbus’ series, this vignette was engraved by Edward Goodall.1 The full title is A Vision. Voyage of Columbus. C.II (The Vision of Columbus) and it appears as the tail-piece to Canto II of ‘The Voyage of Columbus’.2 Whilst sailing across the vast Atlantic, Columbus and his crew are visited by ghosts from the drowned island of Atlantis:
At once the fury of the prow was quelled;
And (whence or why from many an age withheld)
Shrieks, not of men, were mingling in the blast;
And armed shapes of god-like stature passed!
Slowly along the evening-sky they went,
As on the edge of some vast battlement;
Helmet and shield, and spear and gonfalon
Streaming a baleful light that was not of the sun!
(Poems, pp.231–2)
Turner marked the last five lines with pencil in the margin of his working copy of the 1827 edition of Poems (see Tate D36330; Turner Bequest CCCLXVI p.246). Responding directly to the text, his vignette shows a procession of ethereal armed figures silhouetted against the light of a fiery red sky. Columbus himself stands at the stern of his ship, the Santa Maria, arms outstretched in a cruciform pose, as if to ward off the warrior spirits. Like A Tempest, which appears later in the ‘Columbus’ series, The Vision is remarkable for combining imaginative design with dazzling light and colour effects (see Tate D27719; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 202). In Goodall’s engraving, the eerie luminosity of Turner’s watercolour is rendered with even greater effect due to the contrast between the brilliant white light of the sunset, the grey sky and the pitch-black form of the ship. W.G. Rawlinson described the vignette as ‘one of the finest imaginative creations by Turner or any other painter,’3 whilst Ruskin declared that The Vision, along with Turner’s oil paintings, The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in Garden of the Hesperides exhibited 1806 (Tate N00477) and Jason exhibited 1802 (Tate N00471),4 marked ‘the dawn of a new era of art, a true unison of the grotesque with the realistic power’.5
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.400. There are two impressions in Tate’s collection (T05126 and T06172).
Samuel Rogers, Poems, London 1834, p.233.
Rawlinson 1909, vol.I, p.246. Quoted in Piggott 1993, p.43.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, nos.57 and 19.
Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) 1903–12, vol. 5, p.137.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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