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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Rio di San Luca, Venice, with the Church of San Luca and the Back of the Palazzo Grimani 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Rio di San Luca, Venice, with the Church of San Luca and the Back of the Palazzo Grimani 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXVII 30
Gouache, pencil and watercolour on grey wove paper, 194 x 279 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVII – 30’ 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 (‘On the Cross-Canal, between Bridge of Sighs and Rialto’): ‘Ponte Della Guerra and Palazzo Tasca-Papafava &c’.1 These stand on the winding Rio de San Zulian south-east of the Rialto, with an archway flanked by Ionic columns off the short quay north of the bridge, now leading to Instituto San Giuseppe, although the resemblance to Turner’s composition, with its similar feature at the centre, is only passing. Nevertheless, the watercolour was exhibited and published in line with Bell’s note2 until being correctly identified by Ian Warrell in 2003.3
In fact, at the composition’s core is a view is north-west along the Rio di San Luca, towards its entrance into the Grand Canal west of the Rialto Bridge. The imposing central block is the back of the Palazzo Grimani, with the elaborate entrance to its small courtyard beyond the bridge. The pilastered west end of the church of San Luca is towards the right, with a simple stone or rendered bridge leads to its door where the steel Ponte del Teatro crosses today. The towering Grand Canal front of the Grimani is shown in numerous works, including three colour studies in the present grouping (Tate D32169, D32211–D32212; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 32, CCCXVII 26, 27). The last of these is on similar grey paper, as is a view along to the church from the far end of the Rio di San Luca (D32214; CCCXVII 29), with the palace rising cliff-like on the left.
Turner had first recorded the view along the narrow canal in pencil in the 1819 Milan to Venice sketchbook (Tate D14486; Turner Bequest CLXXV 89a),4 when he was staying nearby. There is a more detailed pencil drawing on the back of the present sheet (D40159), which shows a view slightly further forward than this one, omitting the bridge, as does a variant colour study on blue paper (D32216; CCCXVII 31). Lindsay Stainton observed that the ‘more deliberately topographical character and more elaborately coloured’ treatment here and in D32216 ‘may suggest they were worked up at a later stage from slighter sketches’,5 while Timothy Wilcox felt that this work gives a ‘powerful sense of the artist’s mobility in the city’.6
Its multi-layered composition, framed by the arch of a low bridge, creates a sense of depth, grandeur and complexity to what is actually a rather confined space.7 Turner had occasionally used the framing device of a bridge arch before, such as in two unfinished views looking out from under the Rialto dating from shortly after his 1819 stay in Venice, in watercolour (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)8 and on an unusually large scale in oils (Tate N05543).9 As Warrell has noted, even in the pencil study the artist ‘took considerable licence with perspective, and encompassed what amounts to two viewpoints by ingeniously extending the parameters of his image beyond what the human eye can take in.’10
Warrell has suggested that the ‘columned building Turner introduced on the left here may be intended as the Teatro San Benedetto, though it is not visible in the [verso pencil] sketch’.11 The reddish Gothic building parallel to the picture plane under the arch does bears what seems to be a more than fortuitous resemblance to part of the façade of the theatre (later the Rossini cinema and now known as the Palazzo Rossini, used for Biennale exhibitions), moved from its true waterfront alignment along the left side of the canal to suggest a space with figures on a quay or campo in front of it. Meanwhile, the varied façade with balconies and Gothic windows shown on the near side of the church in the right foreground does seem to be intended as a representation of the one still in place there.
The portico abruptly closing off the view above the left-hand end of the bridge has no surviving equivalent, and bears no resemblance to the part of the façade of the Palazzo Papodopoli glimpsed inconspicuously beyond the end of the canal in the pencil sketch and evoked less intrusively in the other colour variant. Although their spatial relationship seems a little ambiguous, close examination suggests that it overlaps slightly with the steeply receding canal front of the Grimani, and it may represent a relatively modest building then adjacent to the bridge. Simple Modernist structures now surround the south and west sides of a small square there, while the plain block on its far side (where the portico seems to be placed here opposite the quay between the church and the Grimani’s back entrance), appears to have been at least partly rebuilt, with the austere colonnade of the Sotoportego de le Muneghe fronting the square and the water. The arch framing the scene may have been intended as or at least suggested by the Ponte de San Paternian, the northernmost of two bridges springing from the Campo Manin a few metres to the south-south-east beyond the Palazzo Rossini.
Warrell has discussed the slightly odd circumstances of Turner’s painting this scene on the other side of such a detailed pencil study (D40159, presumably drawn largely or wholly on the spot), suggesting that he sought to ‘overcome the practical difficulty of making reference to one image while creating the other on its verso’ by using the second sheet (D32216) to ‘reproduce the essence of his pencil sketch’ in colour, manipulating the perspective and detail in the process, and using it ‘as the basis for the [present] more finished drawing’, perhaps ‘related to a deeper need to let his ideas evolve through the process of reworking the final design’.12
Given that there is pencil work structuring the present design, and significant differences in the alignment of the buildings, particularly in the confident introduction of the bridges and complex facades to the left and right not present on the verso but apparently derived from reality, another possibility is that both the recto and verso involved sketching on the spot, likely from two different points on the water, further from or nearer to the Grimani respectively. This would have made the subsequent process of working in colour here potentially less tortuous. The immediate circumstances might be explained if Turner had temporarily run short of paper, or absent-mindedly turned over the sheet one way or the other rather than taking a new one from the bundle he would likely have been carrying.
Without further elaboration, in 1881 John Ruskin categorised this 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.’13 In an unpublished catalogue of 1880 he included it as one of a smaller ‘Glorious grey [paper] group’.14
Compare the handling and sunlit effect (catching the side of a similar bridge in the same way) in the contemporary grey paper colour study of the church of Santo Stefano (Tate D32217; Turner Bequest CCCXVII 32), another subject opened out and considerably developed from its constricted and perhaps unpromising situation in reality.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1025.
Including Stainton 1985, pp.52–3.
See Warrell 2003, pp.156, 158–9, 272.
See ibid., p.156.
Stainton 1985, p.53.
Wilcox 1990, p.35.
See also Warrell 2003, p.158.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.383 no.725, pl.160.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.152 no.245, pl.248.
Warrell 2003, p.156.
Ibid., p.158.
Ibid., pp.156, 158; see also Taft 2004, p.208.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.384.
See ibid., footnote 1.
Technical notes:
This is one of numerous 1840 Venice works Ian Warrell has noted as being on ‘Bally, Ellen and Steart grey paper’ which Turner had also used on his Continental tour of 1833, including Venice, and therefore ‘the dating of some of these sheets in uncertain’ (see in particular Tate D32205–D32210; Turner Bequest CCCXVII 20–25); the following ‘seem to arise from the later visit’:1 Tate D32180–D32181, D32183–D32184, D32200–D32201, D32203–D32204, D32212, D32215, D32217 (Turner Bequest CCCXVII 1, 2, 4, 5, 15, 16, 18, 19, 27–30, 32); see also Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore and the Zitelle from the Giudecca (currently untraced)2 and The Doge’s Palace from the Bacino (private collection),3 and two further ‘half-size sheets’:4 Tate D33883 (Turner Bequest CCCXLI 183), and Shipping with Buildings, ?Venice (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).5

Matthew Imms
September 2018

‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 8) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Wilton 1979, p.464 no.1367, reproduced.
Not in ibid.; Warrell 2003, fig.233 (colour).
Warrell 2003, p.259.
Wilton 1979, p.423 no.1037, reproduced.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Rio di San Luca, Venice, with the Church of San Luca and the Back of the Palazzo Grimani 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-rio-di-san-luca-venice-with-the-church-of-san-luca-and-r1196449, accessed 08 May 2021.