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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Artist's Bedroom in the Hotel Europa (Palazzo Giustinian), Venice, with the City Beyond 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Artist’s Bedroom in the Hotel Europa (Palazzo Giustinian), Venice, with the City Beyond 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXVII 34
Watercolour and gouache on pale buff wove paper, 230 x 302 mm
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVII – 34’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This airy interior is apparently Turner’s own bedroom high up at the north-eastern corner of the Hotel Europa (the Palazzo Giustinian),1 where he stayed in 1840, as he had in 1833 (see the Introduction to this subsection, and further comment at the end of this entry). This is corroborated by his emphatic note on the verso (‘J M W T Bedroom at Venice’);2 compare inscriptions mentioning ‘my Bed Room’ on the versos of Tate D32140 and D32179 (CCCXVI 3, 42). The bright vertical slivers of the vista through the windows show the campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s) in afternoon sunlight to the north-east on the left and that of San Giorgio Maggiore less conspicuously to the south-east at the centre.3
Although in relative shadow, the interior is flooded with ambient light and enlivened by areas of earthy red with hints of furniture, deeper sky-like blue areas flanking the windows, a decorated ceiling and what Finberg described as ‘bright yellow mosquito nets over the beds’.4 He reasonably suggested that it was ‘painted direct from sight’,5 something which can rarely be said for certain of Turner’s watercolour landscape studies. Ian Warrell has described the room as ‘a temporary studio’ for the sequence of rooftop views over central Venice grouped here,6 and it was likely used for working on at least some of the extensive range of watercolours showing other aspects of the city.
Jack Lindsay included this work among examples of Turner’s depictions both of bedrooms and of sexual imagery,7 and David Blayney Brown has described the ‘vividness and immediacy’ and ‘joyousness’ of the setting with its ‘tumbled untidiness of bedding and clothing’,8 which James Hamilton has read as a ‘potent subject’ for the artist, with ‘crumpled sheets on his bed, and ample evidence, if any were needed, that a woman helped him keep his bed warm’.9 Compare the explicit representation of a bedroom and its abandoned inhabitants in the 1802 Swiss Figures sketchbook from Turner’s first Continental tour in 1802 (Tate D04798; Turner Bequest LXXVIII 1).
Whatever the immediate circumstances of this apparently empty room nearly forty years later, Turner depicted more overtly erotic Venetian subjects and settings in some of the other 1840 interiors and figure scenes gathered in a parallel subsection of this catalogue; as has been observed,10 there are no doubt echoes of the simultaneously grand yet intimate bedrooms in his 1827 colour studies at Petworth House, such as Tate D22737 or D22777 (Turner Bequest CCXLIV 75, 115). The high viewpoint seems to have afforded voyeuristic opportunities, with hints of the inhabitants of neighbouring buildings through upper windows11 (see Tate D32179, D32224; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 42, CCCXVIII 5).
The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s 1909 Inventory entry (‘A bedroom in Venice’): ‘Campanile without scaffolding seen from due west, late afternoon’.12 Lindsay Stainton also noticed this supposed absence and queried the 1840 date as a result,13 as clear depictions of the scaffolding in place around the top in that year, but not present during Turner’s previous visit in 1833, link many other views belonging to this final visit (see the Introduction to the tour). However, two horizontal strokes across the spire of the freely painted distant structure may well in any case indicate the platforms shown in more detail elsewhere (see for example Tate D32204; Turner Bequest CCCXVII 19), as Warrell has noted.14
Finberg was uncharacteristically effusive about the work, describing it as ‘wonderful’15 and ‘marvellous’.16 In his general survey of British art, Andrew Graham-Dixon called it ‘perhaps the most striking of all’ the watercolours in the Turner Bequest, ‘miraculous’ and ‘endlessly fascinating’, suggesting that ‘within these few square inches of paper stained by coloured water we see, almost as if mapped out for future generations, the entire course of what we call modern art’, its ‘disregard for conventional perspective’17 prefiguring ‘the spatial freedom of Cubism’, its colour ‘the saturated colour and sensuality of [Henri] Matisse’, its line ‘the imperious free geometry of [Piet] Mondrian’, and its ‘shimmering touch that brings a blank wall to life’ the ‘sublimity of the finest abstract American paintings’.18
While there is no evidence of this work’s specific influence on Modernist artists, the contemporary abstract painter Sean Scully (born 1945) did have both the title and structure of what he called Turner’s ‘beautiful watercolor’ in mind in relation to his large 1988 oil A Bedroom in Venice (Museum of Modern Art, New York). He had been struck by the ‘blanks’ of the windows, which he found ‘really interesting’.19 Employing his characteristic slightly irregular, broadly brushed stripes, two abutting canvases with wide alternating blue-grey verticals each feature an inset rectangular element, with darker horizontal stripes on the left and narrower vertical red and white stripes on the right: ‘When I’m painting that painting, those two inserts are blanks; they’re not there. They’re in the next room or they’re somewhere else. So I’m painting a light grey and a light blue with two holes in it. It’s just part of a field that’s missing. And then the field is completed with an intrusion.’20
A striking vertical detail centred on the view through the window on the left was used for the jacket of the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky’s 1992 Venice book Watermark. The Venetian architect, writer and presenter Francesco da Mosto showed a closer detail of the campanile in his 2004 television series on Venice, cutting to ‘the closest match I can find’, which involved filming through a window rising from chest height in what was then a narrow bathroom running north-south at the north-east corner of the palace’s main block, the room Turner would have known evidently having been gutted and partitioned: ‘Who would have thought that one of the most important places in the history of art would end up a bagno?’21 (See also the Introduction to this subsection regarding the room and comparable viewpoints from the top of the building today.)
See Warrell 2003, p.24.
See Wilton 1982, p.61, Stainton 1985, p.53, Wilton 1987, p.[174].
See Warrell 2003, pp.138, 198.
Finberg 1930, p.93; Finberg 1961, p.356; see also Warrell 2003, p.138.
Finberg 1961, p.356; see also Stainton 1985, p.53.
Warrell 2003, p.24; see also p.138.
See Lindsay 1966, p.244 note 18.
Brown 1992, p.126.
Hamilton 2009, p.101.
See Stainton 1985, p.53, and Hamilton 1997, p.287.
See Warrell 2003, p.24.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1026.
See Stainton 1985, p.53.
See Warrell 2003, p.138.
Finberg 1930, p.93.
Finberg 1961, p.356.
See also Warrell 2003, p.138.
Graham-Dixon 1996, p.159; for Turner and Modernism in general, see Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Manchester and New York 2007.
Scully 2016, p.31.
Ibid.; see also Masheck 2017, p.831.
Noted from commentary and footage in ‘Death’, episode 4 of Franceso da Mosta’s Francesco’s Venice, produced and directed by Sam Hobkinson (BBC, 2004).
Technical notes:
There is slight abrasion and two small holes towards the bottom right, possibly were the usual Turner Bequest blind-stamp, not otherwise apparent, was unsuccessfully applied. Ian Warrell has noted that at the top centre is ‘a small area where a fold has prevented the colour settling’,1 suggesting Turner brushed across it at speed and not concerned to over-elaborate this private memorandum. Finberg reported without further specifics, but perhaps referring to treatment in the aftermath of the 1928 Tate Gallery flood (which may also have affected the verso): ‘Unfortunately the brilliance of this marvellous drawing has been dimmed recently by the restorers.’2
This is one of a few 1840 Venice works Warrell has noted as on ‘Pale buff wove paper, produced by an unknown maker, with the watermark: “J W”’:3 Tate D32148–D32149, D32169, D32211, D32219, D32247 (Turner Bequest CCCXVI 11, 12, 32, CCCXVII 26, 34, CCCXVIII 28); see also Venice from the Lagoon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge),4 and The Rialto, Venice and The Palazzo Balbi on the Grand Canal, Venice (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).5 Warrell has noted paper conservator Peter Bower’s suggestion ‘that this type of paper was a deliberate forgery of Whatman paper and was possibly produced in Austria’,6 and that the ‘inferior quality has resulted in visible changes to the paper, which is especially prone to fading’.7
Warrell 2003, p.138.
Finberg 1961, p.356 (as first published in 1939 edition).
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 4) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.464 no.1362, reproduced.
Ibid., respectively p.464 no.1369, reproduced, p.465 no.1372, reproduced.
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, p.110 under no.63.
Warrell 2003, p.259.
Blank; inscribed by Turner in pencil ‘[?C] | J M W T Bedroom at Venice’, and in ink ‘4’ bottom right, upside down; inscribed in pencil ’34’ above right of centre, ascending vertically, and ‘CCCXVII.34’ bottom centre; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CCCXVII – 34’ towards bottom left.
A fold is evident down the centre of the sheet (see also the technical notes above). There is some dark staining at the top left, also apparent on the recto, and down left-hand edge to a lesser extent, possibly dating from the 1928 Tate flood.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Artist’s Bedroom in the Hotel Europa (Palazzo Giustinian), Venice, with the City Beyond 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-artists-bedroom-in-the-hotel-europa-palazzo-giustinian-r1197021, accessed 24 June 2021.