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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Fishermen on the Lagoon near Venice, by Moonlight 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Fishermen on the Lagoon near Venice, by Moonlight 1840
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 334
Watercolour on white wove paper, 192 x 280 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Inscribed by John Ruskin in blue ink ‘1476’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCLXIV – 334’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This subject has been slow to emerge as relating to Venice. Finberg’s 1909 Inventory listed it as a ‘Lake view, moonlight’.1 While he compared its ‘deep rich colouring’ and ‘such details of handling as the flat modelling of the raft and some of the blues when the paper was wet’ with those of an accepted view of the Venetian Lagoon at sunset (Tate D32162; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 25), Martin Butlin detected ‘distant hills’ here and suggested Switzerland as the setting, dating this work to the mid 1830s.2
Although exhibited as a ‘Lagoon view, moonlight’ in 1963–4, the subject subsequently continued to be described in published texts in terms of being a ‘lake’ view. While noting Butlin’s observations, in attempting to transcribe Turner’s somewhat illegible verse on the back (D40182) Andrew Wilton had suggested in 1975 that ‘Venice’ was mentioned, perhaps indicating the subject of the composition as ‘the Lagoon with a very faint indication of a campanile towards the right’, where a dark stroke above the horizon counterbalances the moon on the left. Nevertheless, while dating this sheet speculatively to 1840, he compared the effect and generic elements to those of a finished watercolour of the mid 1800s, Lake of Brienz, Moonlight (currently untraced),3 an indication of the recurrences and variations on established compositional formulae in Turner’s practice; see also the finished Blue Rigi, Sunrise of 1842 (Tate T12336).4
Having established in relation to the 2003 Turner in Venice exhibition that the present watercolour was painted on one eighth of a divided sheet of which other portions were used for more readily identifiable subjects associated with Turner’s 1840 visit (see the technical notes below), Ian Warrell has described it as showing ‘figures on a boat drawn up alongside one of the makeshift platforms used by fishermen and the hunters of the Lagoon’s wildfowl’, where ‘the central figure holds what could either be a rod or a gun, though both seem at odds with the absolute stillness of the scene’5 (again, compare the Blue Rigi, at the moment where the peace is disturbed by dogs jumping from a boat to chase water birds). Warrell has observed that the lines on the back meditate on ‘the idea of serene moonlight’.6
In 1898 the subject was engraved on the same scale in mezzotint by Sir Frank Short (1857–1945), who speculatively named it The Timber Raft on the Rhine.7 Tate does not hold any impressions; London collections include the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the William Morris Gallery. As well engravings from his own designs and after many other artists, Short made a long sequence of etched and mezzotinted versions of Turner’s Liber Studiorum subjects (see Tate T04873, T05042–T05074, and the Introduction to the ‘Liber Studiorum c.1806–24’ section of this catalogue).
Compare another nocturnal Lagoon scene in this grouping (Tate D32176; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 39). Fishermen may perhaps be shown in a brief sequence of pencil sketches on the Lagoon in the contemporary Venice and Botzen sketchbook (Tate D31872D31874; Turner Bequest CCCXIII 42–43).
Finberg 1909, II, p.1202.
Butlin 1962, p.60.
Wilton 1975, p.150; for the earlier watercolour, see Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.342 no.374, pl.98.
Ibid., p.483 no.1524, pl.248 (colour).
Warrell 2003, p.236.
Hardie 1939, p.23 no.66 (S.240).
Technical notes:
Martin Butlin noted: ‘The moon is shown by leaving the paper uncovered, its reflection by washing or scratching out.’1 The trail of moonlight may also have been reserved between successive washes using gum. The dark forms at the centre were laid over the blue washes, partly merging with them but also in places showing sharp edges and dragged effects indicating that they were reinforced after the initial layers had dried. Bands of rougher colour at the left-hand edge may be test strokes.
This is one of seven 1840 Venice works Ian Warrell has noted as on ‘sheets of white paper probably made [under the name] Charles Ansell.2 These measure approximately 19.8 x 28.4 cm (indicating that they were folded and torn into eight pieces from an imperial sheet)’:3 Tate D32140, D32165, D32179, D35882, D35949, D36192 (Turner Bequest CCCXVI 3, 28, 42, CCCLXIV 43, 106, 334); see also San Giorgio Maggiore from the Hotel Europa, at the Entrance to the Grand Canal (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester).4 Warrell has noted that an ‘eighth sheet’, Tate D32166 (Turner Bequest CCCXVI 29), ‘seems to relate to this group, both technically and in terms of its size, but this has been identified by paper conservator Peter Bower as paper produced by Bally, Ellen and Steart’.5

Matthew Imms
September 2018

Butlin 1962, p.60.
Albeit Peter Bower, Turner’s Later Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820–1851, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.81, notes that the Muggeridge family had taken over after 1820, still using the ‘C Ansell’ watermark.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 1) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also p.138.
Not in Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979; Warrell 2003, fig.148 (colour).
Warrell 2003, p.259; see Peter Bower, Turner’s Later Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820–1851, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, pp.105–7 under no.59.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Fishermen on the Lagoon near Venice, by Moonlight 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, September 2018, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-fishermen-on-the-lagoon-near-venice-by-moonlight-r1196463, accessed 29 January 2022.