Joseph Mallord William Turner

Three Figures in a Darkened Room, Perhaps in Venice


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 131 × 227 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 392

Display caption

Turner often stayed at Petworth, the house in Sussex belonging to his patron the Earl of Egremont. He had free run of its art collections and was given the Old Library to use as a studio. Life at Petworth was grand and bohemian. Working for himself rather than his patron, Turner made a series of small studies in gouache on blue or tinted paper recording the rooms, their furnishings and the unconventional social life that filled them. In studies like this, made at night, by artificial light or behind drawn curtains, these gatherings seem intimate, mysterious and fluid.

Gallery label, October 2013

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Catalogue entry

Having included this sheet somewhat randomly in one of the extensive ‘Miscellaneous: Colour’ sections (mostly of landscape studies) at the end of his 1909 Inventory,1 Finberg subsequently declared that it ‘should have been included’ in Turner Bequest section CCCXIX (‘Venice: Miscellaneous. (d) Brown Paper: small’),2 with other subjects now associated with Turner’s 1840 stay. He described the subject as ‘two ladies dressing in a spacious room, with a man’s figure in black seated with his back to the spectator’.3 The looming shadow towards the left is cast either by the woman with her arms raised, brightly lit by a hidden source beyond the ornate fireplace, or from the bulky silhouetted figure lounging on one elbow in the firelight. The barely draped second woman looks on from the right foreground, pale in the shadows.4
Notwithstanding Finberg’s revised opinion, the work is not mentioned in the either of the later standard surveys of Turner’s Venice work.5 With nothing obviously Venetian in the setting, the sheet came to be associated with Petworth House in Sussex, where Turner often stayed as a guest of his patron Lord Egremont. A vivid series of gouache studies on blue paper associated with his 1827 visit (mostly Tate; Turner Bequest CCXLIV) evoke aspects of the relaxed domestic situation in public and private, including numerous bedroom scenes such as Tate D22679 and D22777 (CCXLIV 17, 115). In first suggesting the link, Andrew Wilton also compared the present work’s ‘more restricted colour range’ with that of the Colour Studies (1) sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CCXCI b),6 one of three small books including often explicitly amorous subjects focused on curtained beds; see the ‘Erotica and Improvisations c.1834–6’ section of this catalogue.
Wilton has also noted this sheet in terms of its ‘similar broad format’7 to that of the unresolved painting now called Interior of a Great House: The Drawing Room, East Cowes Castle and dated to about 1830 (Tate N01988),8 which he discussed in relation to other East Cowes subjects (see the ‘Isle of Wight 1827’ section of the present catalogue). More directly telling is his suggestion that this work ‘may have been executed at the same time’ as Tate D36089 (Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 243),9 a Piranesi-like study of figures in an ambiguous architectural setting which he had previously linked to Venice. Noting this, Eric Shanes subsequently categorised both as ‘Venice?’ scenes without further comment,10 also placing the present sheet among ‘Literary and Book Illustrations’, plausibly implying a narrative element and linking it to Tate D32239 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 20),11 one of the Venice figure scenes considered at times as a Shakespearean subject.
See Finberg 1909, II, p.1209.
Ibid., pp.1028–9.
Finberg 1930, p.176.
See Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.56, related comments in Powell 1989, p.3, and Joll 1989, p.59, and Warrell 2003, p.26.
See Lindsay Stainton, Turner’s Venice, London 1985 and Ian Warrell, David Laven, Jan Morris and others, Turner and Venice, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2003.
Wilton 1975, p.124; see also Butlin, Luther and Warrell 1989, fig.66, and Warrell 1991, p.46.
Wilton 1990, p.59 note 4.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.282–3 no.449, as ‘Interior at Petworth’, c.1837, pl.450 (colour); Wilton 1990, p.55, as ‘Study for the Sack of a Great House? (“Interior at Petworth”)’, c.1830, ill.[1].
Wilton 1990, p.59 note 5.
Shanes 1997, p.103.
Ibid., p.99.
Warrell 2003, p.26.
See Warrell 2012, p.143.
See Warrell 2003, pp.258–9.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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