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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Arsenale, Venice, from a Canal below the Walls 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Arsenale, Venice, from a Canal below the Walls 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXVI 27
Watercolour and gouache on white wove paper, 243 x 308 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVI 27’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s 1909 Inventory entry (‘The Arsenal’): ‘Rio di San Daniele’.1 Ian Warrell has suggested that ‘the bridge and patrolled entrance that Turner depicts seems never to have existed’ and that the ‘view was imaginary, based on that looking up the Rio San Daniele, at the point where it meets the Rio della Tana, to the east of the Corderie, which has neither gateway nor crenellated walls on the right’;2 yet he ‘may, in fact, have developed the drawing over a rudimentary sketch made on the spot, for the back of the sheet has pencil studies of figures, horses and carts that were possibly jotted down while touring the Arsenale’3 (Tate D40158).
These shipyards and armouries had been a keystone of Venice’s past power and influence in the Adriatic and beyond, operating in a large complex of docks and basins well to the east of the ceremonial centre of the city, but were pathetically depleted by Turner’s time in the era of Napoleonic and Austrian control;4 today there is still a naval presence, as well as parts of the site being used for Biennale art exhibits. Although it was naturally largely off-limits, its monumental main entrance on the west side of the complex is not far up the Rio dell’Arsenale from the busy quays continuing along the Canale di San Marco from the Riva degli Schiavoni. Warrell has noted that worries about being arrested as a spy by the Austrian military probably put Turner off making more than a handful of pencil sketches during his three Venice stays, citing examples in the 1819 Milan to Venice sketchbook (Tate D14419; Turner Bequest CLXXV 55) and the 1833 Venice book (Tate D32063; Turner Bequest CCCXIV 73);5 see also D32027 (CCCXIV 52) in the latter, showing the lion statues outside the main Campo dell’Arsenale entrance.
A red brick corner tower with regular white stone quoins marks the Arsenale’s less conspicuous south-eastern corner, and its base is apparently shown here, overlooking the junction where the Rio della Tana comes in eastwards from the waterfront, meeting the Rio San Daniele as it runs north. At the apparent dead end below the high wall in the distance, over which masts are seen,6 the canal turns sharply to the right, becoming the Rio delle Vergini before exiting into the broader waters of the Canale di San Pietro. Military buildings also occupied the area south-east of the turn, hence both sides of the canal are lined with high, largely blank brick walls; today, if not in Turner’s time, the near end on the right shows more variety, with residential blocks and other buildings overlooking the water.
A utilitarian iron footbridge now spans the canal towards the far end between unadorned openings. Itself likely modern, it may have replaced the simple crossing shown here, which Turner has elaborated by the introduction of white stone details around the right-hand portal, likely thinking of the main Porta Magna gate7 he had drawn on previous visits. As well as possibly outlining the composition on the spot, perhaps from the quay opposite the tower or from a discreet distance around the Ponte Nuovo on the Fondamenta San Gioacchin, at some stage in 1840 Turner seems to have skirted the forbidding perimeter by boat; among others in the surrounding area, there are rapid and somewhat shaky pencil drawings of sharply receding prospects between high, castellated walls and towers in the Venice and Botzen sketchbook (Tate D31877–D31878; Turner Bequest CCCXIII 44a, 45).
Their slightness might imply failing light, recalled as the ruddy evening glow evoked here, with violet shadows falling across the end wall and cooler accents around the shadowy bridge.8 Nevertheless, noting the hues as more intense than in most of the contemporary Venice watercolours, Lindsay Stainton has described Turner’s ‘unreal, fiery red colour-scheme. ... It is as if he had started from the fact of the red brick, which then transformed itself in his imagination into the walls of a furnace symbolising the great armaments factory which the Arsenal had once been.’9 The massive, looming setting, emphasised by the tiny yet sinister figures, has led Andrew Wilton, Stainton and Warrell to comparisons with the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778),10 whose oppressive architectural fantasies Turner knew and occasionally echoed (see Tate D17090, D17099; Turner Bequest CXCV 120, 128).
Although the scene has been exhibited and published as ‘An Imaginary View of the Arsenale’ in recent years,11 it is not quite a capriccio, perhaps rather a heightened, freely developed impression; compare for example the colour study of Santo Stefano in this grouping (D32217; CCCXVII 32), which also takes some major liberties, albeit to cheerier effect. Warrell has described the present design as a ‘visceral response’, giving Turner ‘greater scope to project his own ideas of Venetian history’12 than a more conventional view. Although not fully complete, it has ‘a degree of finish more usual in drawings intended for reproduction’ as engravings, as John Gage has noted,13 and Warrell has observed that developing it this far shows that Turner ‘felt this was a subject as significant as the Doge’s Palace in its power and meaning’.14 Compare the evocative nocturnal colour study of the palace and Piazzetta, with its colourful crowd perhaps evoking a historical procession, contrasted with the stark silhouette of an Austrian guard beside a sentry box and cannon (Tate D32220; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 1).
Such images contrast with Turner’s earlier optimistic watercolours of British coastal fortifications and dockyards in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, such as Dover from Shakespeare’s Cliff (currently untraced),15 engraved in 1826 for the Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast (Tate impressions: T04424, T05246–T05251, T06000) or Devonport and Dockyard (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts),16 engraved in 1830 for the Picturesque Views in England and Wales (Tate impressions: T04551–T04552, T06084).
As Warrell has noted, this was the first of the Venice watercolours from the Turner Bequest to be exhibited, chosen by a small committee for display in January 1857 at Marlborough House, then serving as a National Gallery annexe, ahead of John Ruskin’s more comprehensive selection later that year. The 101 others included a handful of former Royal Academy exhibits, with the rest relating to various well-known engraving projects, leaving the present work as the most provisional and relatively ‘unfinished’ example;17 Ruskin called it one of the ‘excellent instances of the later manner’ among the ‘drawings at present exhibited’.18 Without further elaboration, in 1881 he categorised it among twenty-five Turner Bequest subjects ‘chiefly in Venice. Late time, extravagant, and showing some of the painter’s worst and final faults; but also, some of his peculiar gifts in a supreme degree.’19
The subject’s strikingly forceful composition and strong colour presumably contributed to its selection as one of four subjects to represent Turner’s work on stamps commemorating his bicentenary in 1975.20
The verso (D40158, qv) includes the artist’s pencil inscription ‘7 V’, one a few such numbered notes on 1840 Venice-related sheets; see the Introduction to the tour.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1020.
Warrell 2003, pp.126–7; see also p.263 note 24, noting the agreement of Admiral Lorenzo Sferra, of Venice’s Museo Storico Navale.
Ibid., p.127.
See Stainton 1985, p.61, Brown 1992, p.127, and Warrell 2003, p.126.
See Warrell 2003, pp.126, 263 note 21; see also p.197.
See ibid., p.126.
See Moorby 2014, p.108.
See also ibid.
Stainton 1985, p.26; partly quoted in Warrell 2003, p.126; see also Gage 1987, p.52, and Moorby 2014, p.108.
See Wilton 1977, p.82, and Stainton 1985, p.61.
Since Warrell 2003, pp.129, 273.
Ibid., pp.126, 127.
Gage 1987, p.52.
Warrell 2003, p.127.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.355 no.483, reproduced.
Ibid., p.395 no.813, reproduced.
For a detailed listing, see Warrell 1995, p.148, with this work as no.102; see also ibid., p.96, and Warrell 2003, p.127.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.97.
Ibid., p.384.
See Warrell 1997, pp.205, 214 note 51, and 2003, p.263 note 25.
Technical notes:
Ian Warrell has described this sheet as ‘White paper produced by an unknown source, resembling the Whatman papers made by William Balston & Co at Maidstone.’1 He has observed that it is ‘similar in appearance’ to 1840 Venice sheets listed as made under the name of Charles Ansell (see Tate D32138–D32139, D32141–D32143, D32145–D32147, D32154–D32163, D32167–D32168, D32170–D32177, D35980, D36190; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 1, 2, 4–6, 8–10, 17–26, 30, 31, 33–40, CCCLXIV 137, 332),2 albeit some lack watermarks and may ‘be found to be from this source once a full examination of all the sheets has taken place’.
In discussing this work, Martin Butlin has described how by this date the artist’s ‘thin washes ... were often laid over pencil or accompanied by the use of pen or the point of a brush ... Just as, during the varnishing days before the opening of the Royal Academy, Turner would finish his oils by adding the details of figures and subject with his final touches, this linear scaffolding adds form to the rather amorphous watercolour washes.’3
There is extensive scratching out of architectural details and in the water. Paper conservator Peter Bower has noted how papermakers were becoming more consistent at this time, so that any ‘differences ... only became apparent during use’:
Sizing in particular was one area where the papers often varied and the Whatman papers made by Balston are consistently used by Turner for work of this nature where very heavy working and washing of the surface are required. The way the surface has responded to the demands made upon it, with no sign of breaking up, has allowed Turner to keep all his marks, whether made with a fine brush or washed in complex layers, well defined and quite distinct.4

Matthew Imms
September 2018

‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 3) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also Bower 1999, p.76.
See Warrell 2003, p.259, section 2.
Butlin 1968, p.[5].
Bower 1999, p.76.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Arsenale, Venice, from a Canal below the Walls 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-the-arsenale-venice-from-a-canal-below-the-walls-r1196482, accessed 17 May 2022.