Joseph Mallord William Turner

Two Figures in a Dark Arcade, Perhaps in Venice


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 101 × 227 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 243

Catalogue entry

This shadowy, elusive subject, its small figures as it were spotlit in bright touches of within the looming architectural setting, is somewhat reminiscent of the nightmarish prison scenes of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), whose work Turner knew and occasionally echoed (see Tate D17090, D17099; Turner Bequest CXCV 120, 128). Not mentioned in the standard surveys of Turner’s Venice work,1 it is included here as perhaps representing a claustrophobic fantasy on the alleys, archways and side canals evoked in colour studies associated with Turner’s 1840 visit such as such as Tate D32239 and D32257 (CCCXVIII 20, CCCXIX 9). As with some of the other figure studies in the present grouping, it may have a literary source.
Andrew Wilton first suggested a possible Venetian connection on account of ‘some technical characteristics in common’ with more readily identifiable 1840 subjects on grey and brown papers, albeit the handling here is ‘much tighter’.2 He also compared the ‘theatrical quality of the composition and the lighting’ of a night view of the Piazzetta (Tate D32220; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 1).3 Wilton also made wider comparisons with several earlier pencil drawings of complex but provisional architectural subjects in the Ports of England sketchbook of about 1822–3 (Tate D17775; CCII 30a) and the Mouth of the Thames book of about 1832 (Tate D27227–D27228; CCLXXVIII 1a, 2).4 There seems to be no direct connection and any resemblance is likely generic. He has also noted the present sheet in terms of the ‘similar architectural features’5 in the unresolved painting currently known as Interior of a Great House: The Drawing Room, East Cowes Castle and dated to about 1830 (Tate N01988),6 which he discussed in relation to other East Cowes subjects (see the ‘Isle of Wight 1827’ section of the present catalogue).
Of more immediate relevance is Wilton’s suggestion in that context that this work ‘may have been executed at the same time’ as Tate D36259 (Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 392),7 which he described briefly as ‘a dark interior, apparently a bedroom’.8 Noting Wilton’s initial Venetian suggestion in the present case, Eric Shanes categorised both as ‘Venice?’ scenes without further comment.9 D36259 is also included in this subsection as a likely Venice subject, reflecting subsequent discussion, and also the apparently direct physical relationship between the two sheets, as noted below.
See A.J. Finberg, In Venice with Turner, London 1930, 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.120.
Ibid., p.134.
Ibid., p.120.
Wilton 1990, p.59 note 5.
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.
Ibid., note 4.
Shanes 1997, p.103.
See Warrell 2003, pp.258–9.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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