J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Colour Key of Raphael's 'Transfiguration' (Inscriptions by Turner) 1802

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 13 Recto:
Colour Key of Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’ (Inscriptions by Turner) 1802
Turner Bequest LXXII 13
Inscribed by Turner in pencil (see main catalogue entry) on white wove paper prepared with a grey wash, 128 x 114 mm
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘13’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘LXXII–13’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This leaf is inscribed with letters or initials in a series of patterns, the top letter being ‘T’. Finberg supposed that these ‘probably represent an analysis of the colour schemes of two pictures’ and indeed they do appear to fall into two groups. If Finberg were correct the pictures would be landscape compositions, perhaps by Nicolas Poussin, several of whose pictures are recorded by similar notations elsewhere in the sketchbook; for Turner’s copies and comments on Poussin see chiefly folio 25 verso (D04302). However, the notations could equally well document a single picture of upright format whose composition falls into separate zones. If the top ‘T’ is a heading rather than itself part of the colour key, this picture can be identified as the Transfiguration by Raphael (Raphael Santi 1483–1520). The patterns of letters, especially the triangular arrangement of the upper group, and some of those that are legible such as ‘Y’, ‘G’ and ‘B’ (assuming that these literally indicate yellow, green and blue or black), as well as the appearance of the word ‘Lake’ at lower left of centre, conform to both the composition and colouring of Raphael’s picture. The notations are too complex in their arrangement to replicate here and further investigation of the originals may be required to elucidate their meaning.
Until now it had been thought that Turner took no notice of the Transfiguration in his sketchbook.1 In fact this would have been unlikely as it was one of the most prized pictures in the Louvre, having been taken from the Vatican. It was restored to Rome after the fall of Napoleon (Pinacoteca Vaticana). An idea of the impression it made on artists who saw it in Paris can be gained from the long description written by Turner’s colleague Joseph Farington after he had ‘sat long before’ it on 6 September 1802. Farington also concentrated on its colouring, in which ‘the eye of that great Master [Raphael] even in this one of his last works saw through the medium of his predecessors’. He continued:
Shining lights and black shadows prevail throughout the picture but most forcibly in the lower parts. This causes a severity in the effect which some critics have thought necessary to the Sentiment, and to the gravity & dignity of the Subject... The colours were used thinly by which heaviness was avoided. – An examination into the execution of so extraordinary a work I went into, as it shewed what that great Master thought necessary to the Completion of it... Were I to decide by the effect it had upon me I should not hesitate to say that the patient care and solid manner in which The Transfiguration is painted made an impression on my mind that caused other pictures esteemed of the first Class, to appear weak, and as wanting in strength & vigour.2
Farington also recorded visits to see the picture or discussions about it with other colleagues including Henry Fuseli, for whom it was the ‘Second picture’ in the Louvre after Titian’s St Peter Martyr, John Hoppner3 and Benjamin West who ‘said that the opinion of ages stood confirmed that it still held the first place’.4
If Turner was working through the sketchbook systematically, beginning from the front, this colour key would represent his first use of it in the Louvre, and the fame of Raphael’s picture might well have led him to it before all others. However, it seems odd that he should begin on folio 13, and the disjointed arrangement of other material in the book suggests that he used it haphazardly and that we cannot draw conclusions about his priorities or preferences from the order of contents. Moreover it might not have been easy for him to locate this picture on a first visit. From Farington’s account of his own first sight of it on 1 September we know that, with masterpieces including the St Peter Martyr, it had been removed from its usual position to make space for the Salon of contemporary painting, and placed on the floor of ‘an unfinished continuation of the Gallery’ (that is, of the Grande Galerie). There it was accessible ‘by a private order’, and ‘That our admittance in future might not be interrupted we gave the Person who attended a Louisdore [sic], and the Man below a Crown’.5 Turner probably had to give similar tips or bribes when he arrived at the end of the month.
Once accessible, this temporary position allowed for close examination, and Farington and West were able to see that the picture ‘is painted on thick wood, which having become rather rotten it has been clamped at the back with Iron’. They observed that ‘the Shadows were something black’ while elsewhere ‘there was a brilliancy in the effect resembling stained glass’.6 Farington did not mention that the picture had just been treated by the Louvre’s restorers but Turner was well aware of their work and in some later notes in his copy of Martin Archer Shee’s Elements of Art (private collection), remarked that ‘the regenerated power of the picture cleaners had laboriously tho ingeniously travel’d over its surface’. This sounds slightly sarcastic, as if Turner thought their attentions had gone beyond cleaning. Nevertheless, he judged that the Transfiguration ‘for breadth judicious chiaroscuro and colour ... must indisputably be looked at with awful veneration of his [Raphael’s] talents and with a stronger claim to a colorist than any picture by him’.7 When Turner came to consider the picture for the first of his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, on perspective and geometry, it was not its colour but its composition that he discussed. Displaying a diagram of the upper section of the picture (Tate D17134; Turner Bequest CXCV 163) he demonstrated how it is constructed on a system of intersecting triangles.
See for example Ian Warrell in David Solkin ed., Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009, p.44.
Farington (6 September 1802) in Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London 1979, vol.V, pp.1831–2.
Farington (10, 11 September 1802), ibid., p.1847.
Farington (14 September 1802), ibid., p.1852.
Farington (1 September 1802), ibid., pp.1820–1.
Farington (14 September 1802), ibid., p.1853
Turner quoted by Barry Venning, ‘Turner’s Annotated Books: Opie’s “Lectures on painting” and Shee’s “Elements of Art”’ (II), Turner Studies, vol.2, no.2, ‘1983’ for 1982, p.46.

David Blayney Brown
October 2009

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Colour Key of Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’ (Inscriptions by Turner) 1802 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, October 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-colour-key-of-raphaels-transfiguration-inscriptions-by-r1129695, accessed 20 May 2024.