Mystic Seaport Museum (Mystic, USA): Turner Watercolours
Technique and condition
In this composition, the paper was given a grey wash, and opaque white gouache mixed with many colours was applied everywhere, to give an appearance almost like oil paint. This conceals the colour of the paper, which is quite likely to be white. The arch has been moved farther to the left, and coloured.
A number of warm-toned and yellow/brown earth colours were used, and the terracotta and buff shades may include Indian yellow, a pigment which Turner used in watercolour occasionally in earlier years, but more rarely by this time. It is recognisable by its golden glow when the sheet is examined in ultraviolet light. The bright blue of the sky could only be achieved with an intense blue pigment such as Prussian blue. The other possibility of cobalt blue can be discounted, because it would have been recognisable in ultraviolet light had it been present.
An X-radiograph was made of the whole sheet, to investigate the gouache. This indicated that for the buildings, cows and people it was made from lead white, not chalk as used by most watercolour artists at this time. Lead white is the very opaque pigment that Turner and all his contemporaries used in oil paint, and he frequently used the full range of pigments that he employed in oil paint, ground in gum water for application to paper. Lead white is so dense that it absorbs X-rays completely, so an X-radiograph of either a painting or a watercolour can reveal the patterns of its use, and can also reveal areas where the artist altered the composition without scraping off the earlier paint completely. That is the reason that a change in the position of the arch is known here, and also the reason that it can be stated confidently that Turner frequently used lead white in gouache, and thereby established a trend which later watercolour artists would follow. The dense gouache is particularly effective when contrasted with the bright blue sky here, and Turner used it regularly for white highlights and sometimes for extensive and key parts of the composition, to achieve a visually similar effect on blue paper for both studies and finished watercolours.
The subject of this coloured study is the eastern end of the Roman Forum. Turner’s viewpoint is just in front of the Colosseum, with his back to the famous amphitheatre, looking west down the Via Sacra. Dominating the left-hand side of the picture is an oblique view of the Arch of Constantine, whilst the foreground object to the right is the Meta Sudans, a conical fountain dating from the first century, demolished by Mussolini in 1936. The perspectival focal point of composition is the Arch of Titus, which stands in the central middle distance with the Temple of Venus and Roma on the right, and the Palatine Hill on the left. Thomas Ashby has identified the tower to the immediate left of the Arch as the Turris Cartularia, a building which once contained the archives of the Church of Rome, but which was demolished in 1828.1 In the far distance is the Capitoline Hill, with the campanile of the Senatorial Palace. The small figurative group in the immediate foreground includes a man driving two cows, a reminder of the nineteenth-century usage of the Forum as a market for livestock which had led the modern appellation of the site as the ‘Campo Vaccino’ (Field of Cattle). Like many drawings within the Rome C. Studies sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner first sketched a rough pencil outline before more fully developing the view in watercolour and gouache.
The Forum represented the heart of political, commercial and judicial life in ancient Rome and during his 1819 sojourn in Rome, Turner made numerous sketches of its magnificent buildings and monuments (see for example, the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook, the St Peter’s sketchbook, the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook, all Tate). The Rome: C. Studies sketchbook contains a number of detailed compositions, some developed in colour, principally featuring views of the eastern end with the Colosseum, and the Arches of Constantine and Titus (see D16351, D16354, D16355, D16365, D16370, D16372, D16375, D16376, D16379, D16389; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 25, 28, 29, 38, 43, 44, 46, 47, 50, 58). These ideas would later evolve into the large finished oil painting, Forum Romanum, for Mr Soane’s Museum exhibited 1826 (Tate N00504).2
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