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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Commentary on Titian's 'St Peter Martyr' (Inscription by Turner) 1802

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 28 Verso:
Commentary on Titian’s ‘St Peter Martyr’ (Inscription by Turner) 1802
Turner Bequest LXXII 28a
Inscribed by Turner in black ink, upside down (see main catalogue entry) on white wove paper prepared with a pale reddish brown wash, 128 x 114 mm
Stamped in black ‘LXXII–28a’ top right (inverted)
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner’s notes (written with the sketchbook inverted) continue on the recto of this leaf (D04308), as Turner worked his way back through the book and conclude on folio 27 verso (D04306). For convenience they are transcribed in full here:
This Picture is an instance of his | great power as to conception and | sublimity of intellect for the characters | are finely contrasted [Finberg also suggested contrived]. The com | position is beyond all system the | landscape tho natural is heroic the | figure wonderfully expressive of | surprise and its concomitate fear | The sanguinary assassin striding over | the prostrate martyr who with | uplifted arm exults in being ack | nowledged by Heaven. The affrighted | Saint has a dignity even in his | fear (and tho’ this idea might have been | borrow’d) yet is here his own. The | force with which he appears to | bound towards you is an effort | of the highest powers, the angels [continued on the recto of this leaf] finely introduced and are boyant | Surely the sublimity of the whole lies | in the simplicity of the parts | and not in the historical colour which | produces the sublimity in some pictures | were [sic] the Subject and Nature must accord.| much has been said upon this subject | more as an extenuation of an excentric | color than as a Beauty or rule. Tho a | charged with colour it should be | uniform and accord with sentiments as of Nature. But here the tender green | of the foreground and the foliage of the | large trees are rendered Black by the | vivid blue of the Sky which no doubt | was glazed over with the nuteralizing | tint that pervades in the Saints | but has been removed which has [concluded on folio 27 verso] surely been removed from the right hand & | leg of St Peter for it is of the same tone | as the stone near it while the Assasin | is brown and full of colour. Fear is full, | for when nature rather demands less of | color, therefore the nuteralizing tint, alias | historical color has been partially | removed: not but Blue is | highly essential to the dignity of the subject, but | its present glaze divides the picture | into two, by being vivid and tender.
Finberg correctly identified the subject of Turner’s remarks as ‘Titian’s “Peter Martyr”’. Titian’s altarpiece, of 1528, depicted the murder of a Dominican inquisitor and scourge of heretics, on the road from Milan to Como. Having been taken by the French from the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, it was one of the pictures most admired by British visitors to the Louvre in 1802. For Turner’s generation of artists, familiar with Joshua Reynolds’s praise in his Royal Academy Discourses, it was an archetype of historic landscape. It made an immediate impression on Joseph Farington, who on 1 September was able to examine it placed on the floor of ‘an unfinished continuation’ of the Grande Galerie, after it had been removed from the adjacent Salon carré to make way for the modern works being hung for the Salon.1 On 3 September John Opie told Farington that it was ‘the finest of all the works He has seen for excellence of Composition’, and they both admired its deep blue sky and ‘strength of tone and simplicity’;2 for Henry Fuseli on 10 September it was simply ‘the most complete picture in the collection’.3
Turner seems not to have made a copy of the picture while in the Louvre, perhaps feeling that it was sufficiently familiar from prints (for example the engraving by Martino Rota and the English chiaroscuro woodcut by John Baptist Jackson). His oil, Holy Family (Tate N00473)4 was originally to have been based on Titian’s composition, as may be seen from the drawing in the Calais Pier sketchbook showing the same landscape background with flying putti (Tate D04965; Turner Bequest LXXXI 63). In the event, Turner adapted the Titianesque setting for his upright Venus and Adonis (Stanley Moss, Riverdale, New York),5 indeed more faithfully, as Butlin and Joll observe, than is apparent from the sketch for the picture also in the Calais Pier sketchbook (D04952; Turner Bequest LXXXI 50).
The picture was restored to its original home after the fall of Napoleon but was destroyed by fire in 1867. In Venice in 1833, Turner sketched it in SS Giovanni e Paolo in his Venice sketchbook (Tate D31992, D31993; Turner Bequest CCCXIV 34a, 35). During his first visit to the city in 1819, he copied the Martyr’s leg and some weeds in the foreground, thus maintaining his interest in the picture’s naturalistic elements which, as Warrell points out,6 were at variance with Reynolds’s claim that Titian tended to generalise them. Turner’s belief that the brightness of the blue sky was due to the removal of modulating glazes obviously cannot be substantiated as the picture is lost, but clearly he thought Titian was not responsible for what struck him as its unbalanced and unnatural effect. At a dinner at the Academy Club on 5 November, after their return from Paris, Turner was present with other artists including Farington, who reported, ‘The blue sky in the St. Peter Martyr of Titian was much objected to by [? William] Daniell & [Martin Archer] Shee, & Turner inclined to them’, in opposition to his own and Benjamin West’s more sympathetic views.7 However, Turner allowed no such reservations to qualify his praise for the picture in his 1811 lecture as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy; ‘the highest honour that landscape has as yet, she received from the hand of Titian .... The triumph even of Landscape may be safely said to exist in his divine picture of St Peter Martyr’.8

David Blayney Brown
October 2009

Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol.V,, New Haven and London 1979, pp.1819–20 (1 September 1802).
Ibid., p.1825.
Ibid., p.1847.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.38–9 no.49 (pl.60).
Ibid., pp.113–15 no.150 (pl.49).
Warrell 2003, p.57.
Farington in Garlick and Macintyre eds. 1979, p.1929.
Jerrold Ziff, ‘“Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landscape”: A Lecture by J.M.W. Turner’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.26, 1963, p.135.

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Commentary on Titian’s ‘St Peter Martyr’ (Inscription 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-commentary-on-titians-st-peter-martyr-inscription-by-turner-r1129717, accessed 25 February 2021.