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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Lake Como from Menaggio, Looking towards Bellagio 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Lake Como from Menaggio, Looking towards Bellagio 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXI 2
Watercolour on white wove paper, 223 x 287 mm
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘2’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXI – 2’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The view is south-south-east to the wooded promontory of Bellagio, nearly five miles across Lake Como, and is recognisable from Menaggio’s small stone harbour off Via Giuseppe Mazzini. Tate D15251 (Turner Bequest CLXXXI 1), originally bound consecutively, is a more developed variant, but the alignments suggest that the viewpoint is much the same in each. The difference appears to be in the lighting of the sky and distant mountains, with D15251 suggesting full afternoon sunshine, while the present work may show the light fading towards sunset, with only the peaks still fully illuminated.
While the work has long been recognised as showing Lake Como,1 the particular viewpoint was established by Ian Warrell as Menaggio in 2003, in relation to D15251.2 There is a pencil drawing in the smaller contemporary Turin, Como, Lugarno, Maggiore sketchbook (Tate D14275; Turner Bequest CLXXIV 67a) with figures and boats in the foreground which appears to relate directly, although Nicola Moorby suggests in its catalogue entry that ‘Turner’s viewpoint appears to be the eastern shore of the western branch of the lake [south of Menaggio], looking north towards Bellagio with the Alps beyond’.
The Turin, Como, Lugarno, Maggiore book includes views of Turin, the Italian Lakes and Borromean islands, and the route to the Simplon Pass in the Swiss Alps, as Turner took a major detour to explore new ground during his journey eastwards across northern Italy towards Venice. It contains other views in the vicinity of Menaggio, the furthest north he reached along the shores of the lake before turning west for Lake Lugano (Tate D14276–D14279; Turner Bequest CLXXIV 68–69a).
Whether made on the spot or some time later from a combination of memory and consultation of the pencil sketch,3 the two ‘ravishing’4 Como views were likely to have been the first watercolours Turner made in Italy, although Warrell has suggested they may have been preceded by a Milan subject (D15253; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 3).5 Andrew Wilton has remarked: ‘His initial colour experiments in Italy show that he was able to respond freshly to what he found’, with ‘a delicacy in the rendering of detail, and ... a brilliancy in the suggestion of light, that convince us that Turner knew exactly how to manage the new scenery with which he was confronted’.6
Menaggio, Lake Como, an early 1840s watercolour and gouache view on grey paper (Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere),7 shows the town in the distance from the south.
See Finberg 1909, I, p.535.
See Ian Warrell, David Laven, Jan Morris and others, Turner and Venice, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2003, caption to fig.15.
See Warrell 1998, p.154.
Warrell 2003, p.88.
Warrell 2008, p.67 note 1.
Wilton 1979, p.142; see also Wilton 1983, p.218, Stainton 1985, p.41, Wilton 1988, p.70, Perkins 1990, p.36, and Brown 2002, p. 110.
Not in Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979; see Warrell 1998, p.154 no.264, pl.47 (colour).
Technical notes:
There is a finger print on the dark green headland above Bellagio to the left of centre, presumably evidence of Turner’s lifting excess colour out or seeking to introduce slight texture or variety. Watercolour has pooled in a slight paper fault towards the bottom left. The work was painted within the Como and Venice sketchbook, the first eight leaves of which where mounted in 1935 (see the book’s Introduction); all of them were trimmed slightly irregularly at the gutter on the left, with the edges of the stitching holes being evident here and there.
Blank, save for slight splashes of blue-grey watercolour from D15253 (Turner Bequest CLXXXI 3), originally bound opposite; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CLXXXI – 2’ towards bottom left, inscribed in pencil ‘CLXXXI – 2’ bottom centre, and in pencil ‘CL<XXXI 7 –>’ towards bottom right.

Matthew Imms
March 2017

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Lake Como from Menaggio, Looking towards Bellagio 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2017, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, July 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-lake-como-from-menaggio-looking-towards-bellagio-r1186392, accessed 28 May 2024.