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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Roman Campagna with the River Tiber and Ponte Molle in the Distance 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Roman Campagna with the River Tiber and Ponte Molle in the Distance 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 35
Pencil and watercolour on white wove paper, 267 x 404 mm
Inscribed by John Ruskin in blue ink ‘[?35]’ bottom right, descending right-hand edge
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXVII 35’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
A large number of studies from the Naples: Rome C. Studies sketchbook represent variant views of the Roman Campagna, the area of countryside encircling the outskirts of the Eternal City (Tate D16122–D16139; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 34–51). This is one of six such compositions where Turner has developed the landscape in watercolour (see also Tate D16122, D16129–D16131, D16133; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 34, 41–43, 45). The subject of this coloured drawing is a view of the gentle hills of the Campagna with the winding course of the River Tiber. The view is taken from a point upstream of the Ponte Molle, an ancient bridge also known as the Ponte Milvio, which can be seen in the distance in the centre of the composition. Beyond this is the high peak of Monte Mario topped by trees in the centre and the dome of St Peter’s on the left. Finberg suggested that the viewpoint was the village of Castel Giubileo, approximately five miles north of the city.1
Further studies of the Campagna and the Ponte Molle can be found in the St Peter’s sketchbook (see Tate D16217–D16226; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 35–40) and throughout the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook (see Tate; Turner Bequest CXC). By the nineteenth century, exploration of the city’s environs had become as much part of the Roman experience as its architecture and monuments. Turner’s forays into the Campagna followed a long artistic tradition established during the seventeenth century by Claude Lorrain (circa 1600–1682) and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). The two French masters had famously made a number of sketching trips along the banks of the Tiber north of the city; indeed the countryside between the Porta del Popolo and the Ponte Molle had popularly become known as the ‘Promenade de Poussin’. Turner, in particular, admired the work of Claude Lorrain whose paintings such as The Roman Campagna circa 1639 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) combined motifs studied on the spot with an idealised vision of landscape. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, artists in search of authentic Italian landscape continued to follow the precedent for drawing and painting the Campagna and during the 1820s a small European coterie began to focus on painting in the open air.2 Unlike earlier topographical artists who had focused their depiction of the Campagna on images of selected landmarks, nineteenth century en plein air painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) and his contemporaries developed a new approach rooted in empirical observation. Working directly from nature they produced panoramic views of vast barren spaces, deserted except for distant hills and isolated ruins which served to emphasise the grand emptiness of the terrain.
Turner’s watercolour studies of the Campagna share a number of pictorial similarities with the work of these en plein air artists.3 The landscapes he depicts are wide, open spaces, often devoid of figures, where the key compositional interest is provided by the winding river, distant mountain ranges or solitary ancient structures. There is also a similar focus on the broad expanse of sky and the transient effects of light. Yet there is no evidence that the artist actually painted in the open air during his time in Italy. Several contemporary sources testify that his preference was for drawing on the spot and for colouring indoors away from the motif, since it took up ‘too much time to colour in the open-air’ and ‘he could make 15 or 16 pencil sketches to one colored’.4 In this work, the basic outline of the composition has first been sketched in pencil and then overlaid with broad washes of colour. The sky and the river have been described with liquid washes of limpid blue, combined with areas of white paper left blank to indicate intense and reflected light. Cecilia Powell has described Turner’s use of blue for the distant planes of the composition as purposefully obliterating all detail.5 This recalls the atmospheric effects of aerial perspective which characterise much of the work of Claude Lorrain. By contrast, the vegetation in the foreground is comprised of areas of paint manipulated whilst tacky to create texture and visual interest. Dry, vertical brushstrokes, for example, in the bottom right-hand corner suggest the appearance of reeds growing alongside the water’s edge. Powell has described a passage on the right beneath the sweep of the river as a ‘marvellous flurry of wet paint agitated by a finger to produce the effect of rough grassy hillocks’.6 In certain places the artist’s fingerprints are clearly visible. Andrew Wilton has pointed to the visual similarity between this watercolour study and the treatment and colouring of a large colour beginning (see Tate D25248; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 126).7
Finberg 1909, p.556.
Peter Galassi, Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition, New Haven and London 1991, pp.120–2.
Letter to John Soane from his son, 15 November 1819, quoted in Powell 1987, p.50.
Powell 1984, p.182.
Ibid., p.123, and Powell 1987, pp.49–50.
Wilton 1975, p.53 under nos.60–61.
Technical notes:
Long detached from the Naples, Rome C. Studies sketchbook, this sheet was perhaps once folio 35 (see the concordance in the introduction).
Blank, save for inscriptions by unknown hands in pencil ‘26’ centre and ‘CLXXXVII 35’ lower centre left, inverted; stamped in black ‘CLXXXVII 35’ and Turner Bequest monogram bottom left.

Nicola Moorby
February 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Roman Campagna with the River Tiber and Ponte Molle in the Distance 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, February 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-the-roman-campagna-with-the-river-tiber-and-ponte-molle-in-r1132385, accessed 25 June 2024.