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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Lagoon near Venice, at Sunset 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Lagoon near Venice, at Sunset 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXVI 25
Watercolour on white wove paper, 244 x 304 mm
Watermark ‘C Ansell | 1828’
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Inscribed by John Ruskin in blue ink ‘[...]5[...]’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVI 25’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Noting the subject simply as ‘Venice’, in 1857 John Ruskin described the evocative setting: ‘Just after sunset. The position of the city is indicated by the touches of white in the vermilion cloud.’ He continued:
I cannot make out the long purple object like a wall in the middle distance. But I imagine, from the position of the sun, that the subject is a reminiscence of a return from Torcello towards Venice.
The clouds are remarkable as an example of Turner’s frequent practice of laying rich colour on a wet ground, and leaving it to gradate itself as it dried, a few subsequent touches being, in the present instance, added on the right hand. Although the boat in the centre seems a mere scrawl, the action of the gondolier (at the left-hand side) is perfectly given in his forward thrust.1
The ‘touches of white’ Ruskin noted are no longer readily apparent (compare the treatment of the distant city in Tate D32153; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 16), while the ‘purple wall’ seems rather to be simply one more band of strong colour among the rest, modifying the green sea where it meets the horizon below the orange of the sky. Given the lack of features except the posts marking a channel,2 his idea of a ‘reminiscence of a return from Torcello’, among the many islands in the Lagoon a few miles north-east of the city, is entirely conjectural since there are no confirmed Torcello views,3 albeit such a voyage would place the apparent sunset effect in a correspondingly westerly direction. In 1881 he fancifully called the subject ‘Farewell to Venice’,4 perhaps contrasting it with the ‘Approach’ shown in both D32153 and a related painting. Latterly, Leo Costello has taken the present work as evoking ‘a space of desolation and emptiness’, where the ‘city hovers as a ghostly presence on the horizon, which seems to be passing into nothingness with the setting sun’,5 in ‘a “recession from history”’ itself.6
Somehow, by the early twentieth century the work’s official title had become ‘Venice, from Fusina’,7 in which case the view would be to the east, with the glowing sky conventionally assumed to indicate dawn. Martin Butlin noted Ruskin’s original Torcello suggestion as in accord with the ‘sunset effect’,8 and Lindsay Stainton has concurred,9 calling it ‘an astonishing image’,10 and ‘one of those flaming Venetian sunsets which writers from Aretino [1492–1556] onwards had enthusiastically described but which, until Turner, no artist since the Renaissance had painted’.11 Turner’s inscription on the verso (D40157) appears to describe a sunset, which would seem to strengthen the case.12 While noting that there is ‘nothing there’ topographically, Ian Warrell has suggested nevertheless that such colours might have been observed in the eastern part of the sky around sunset.13
Describing the work among other Venetian colour studies as ‘impressionistic’ in the broadest sense, the art historian J.E. Phythian was particularly taken by the forceful palette, ‘with the rose, gold and orange in the sky made intensely luminous by the deep purple cloudlet dashed into the still wet wash of colour’.14 Butlin later characterised it as among ‘studies more in the abstract relationship of colours than the direct result of visual experience’,15 with its ‘heavily saturated tones’,16 ‘arranged in three bands, the lowest, the lagoon, in no way reflecting the sunset tints of the sky’, apparently ‘over an even simpler groundwork of a blue wash at the bottom, later painted over with green to represent water, and a pink one at the top, partly covered with the warm reds and yellows of the middle zone’.17 He noted ‘lay-ins’ of this kind elsewhere, for example in the 1819 Como and Venice sketchbook18 (see Tate D15261–D15262; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 10, 11).
Stainton has suggested that the ‘colours chosen may be a subconscious illustration of Turner’s understanding of colour science as expounded (not very clearly) in his Royal Academy lectures on perspective’ (see the ‘Perspective lectures c.1809–28’ section of this catalogue), with ‘positive colours’ being ‘“aerial” or light colours, not the local colours of objects’, while darkness was ‘“the privation of colour” and was obtained by mixing all the others’, as in the ‘mud-colour’ of the silhouetted foreground features.19 Warrell has described the colours in ‘several distinct fields, almost as if seen through a prism’,20 and has discussed several of these Lagoon subjects in relation to Turner’s later interest in Goethe’s colour theory21 (see the Introduction to this subsection), suggesting that Tate D36190 (Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 332), with its cooler colours, may show ‘the same setting under altered conditions’.22
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.215.
See Stainton 1985, p.26, and Warrell 2003, p.236.
See Warrell 2003, p.236.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.373.
Costello 2012, p.167.
Ibid., p.168.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.215 footnote 2, p.611; see also Finberg 1909, II, p.1020, Finberg 1930, p.174, and comment in Warrell 1995, p.116.
Butlin 1962, p.56.
See Stainton 1985, p.63.
Stainton 1982, p.69.
Stainton 1985, p.26.
See ibid., p.63, Warrell 1995, pp.115, 116, Warrell 2003, p.236, and Taft 2004, p.216.
See Warrell 2003, p.236, and p.265 note 20 for a comparison with the sky looking east in the afterglow near Venice by Edward William Cooke (1811–1880).
Phythian 1910, pp.104–5.
Butlin 1962, p.6.
Ibid., p.11; see also p.56.
Ibid., p.56; see also Stainton 1982, p.69, and Taft 2004, p.216.
Butlin 1962, p.56; see also p.36.
Stainton 1985, p.26.
Warrell 1995, p.116.
See Warrell 2003, p.235.
Ibid., p.236.
Technical notes:
For comparison with the contemporary painting practice of William Blake (1757–1827), the present work and Turner’s 1830 Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence (Tate D25467; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 344) have been analysed and ‘the same Arabic and tragacanth gum mixture used by Blake was identified in each painting. Comparing these results suggests that Turner may have added gum tragacanth to his paints when the work required it’,1 when he needed a thicker layer to work over an existing wash without dissolving it.2 See the extended technique and condition notes by Helen Evans and Joyce Townsend appended to D25467.
This is one of numerous 1840 Venice works Ian Warrell has noted as on sheets of ‘white paper produced [under the name] Charles Ansell,3 each measuring around 24 x 30 cm, several watermarked with the date “1828”’:4 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). Warrell has also observed that The Doge’s Palace and Piazzetta, Venice (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)5 and Venice: The New Moon (currently untraced)6 ‘may belong to this group’.7

Matthew Imms
September 2018

Ormsby and others 2003, p.144.
See discussion, ibid., p.139.
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 2) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.463 no.1356, reproduced.
Ibid., p.464 no.1365.
Warrell 2003, p.259.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Lagoon near Venice, at Sunset 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-lagoon-near-venice-at-sunset-r1196455, accessed 23 January 2022.