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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Venice by Moonlight, with Boats off a Campanile 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Venice by Moonlight, with Boats off a Campanile 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXV 10
Watercolour on white wove paper, 220 x 319 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCXV – 10’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Writing in 1857, John Ruskin described this watercolour, which he called simply ‘Moonrise’: ‘A highly-finished study, but the locality is here also uncertain [see his comments on Tate D32125; Turner Bequest CCCXV 9]. There are so many campaniles in Venice of the class to which this tower belongs, that it is almost impossible to identify one of them under Turner’s conditions of mystery, especially as he alters the proportions indefinitely, and makes the towers tall or short just as it happens to suit the sky.’1 By the early twentieth century it had come to be catalogued as ‘Venice: Suburb’,2 and the art historian J.E. Phythian then included this work among other Venetian studies he called ‘brilliant in light and colour’ and ‘impressionistic’ in the broadest sense, rhapsodizing at the ‘faintly gleaming light of the rising moon, and the fading sunlight, and the darkness beginning to steal over the waters!’3
In 1930, Finberg suggested that the scene perhaps encompassed ‘the church and Tower of S. Zaccaria, with S. Giorgio and the Zitelle in the distance on the left’,4 meaning that the viewpoint would be off the Riva degli Schiavoni, looking south-westwards across the Canale di San Marco and Bacino to the domed churches on the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore and the Isola della Giudecca beyond. Andrew Wilton followed Finberg’s suggestion, specifying ‘the Zitelle, with perhaps the Salute on the right’, in ‘[o]ne of the most poetic of the Venetian watercolours’.5 Lindsay Stainton agreed in this assessment, while pointing out that if the topography were as suggested, ‘the view would thus be to the west ... If this is so, Turner must surely be showing the moon setting in the early morning, rather than the moonrise.’6
As Ruskin had, Ian Warrell linked this study with another from this sketchbook (D32125; CCCXV 9), perhaps showing the same elusive buildings.7 He noted the previous topographical suggestions and Stainton’s comment as to the position of the moon; however: ‘Even allowing for the kinds of distortion noted by Ruskin, none of the other architectural features really supports this identification.’8 He subsequently developed a new idea linking the two studies to two more securely identifiable views apparently including the supressed convent of Santi Biagio e Cataldo, overlooking the south side of the Canale della Giudecca from the then somewhat remote western end of the island from which it takes its name (D32128–D32129; CCCXV 12, 13).
He suggested that this and D32125 showed the equivalent point across on the north side, around the church of Santa Marta, also long supressed, then overlooking the open Lagoon but now facing extensive modern docks;9 the plain, barn-like convent church survives as an occasional arts venue, although its campanile was demolished in 1910.10 Warrell has described all four scenes as ‘characterised by sunset or twilight effects that clothe the city in a misty iridescence further frustrating attempts to pinpoint the localities represented’ noting that ‘it is very likely that Turner worked on these views away from the motif, so that while the general points of the remembered scenes were correct, some of the details might have been altered’.11
Warrell has offered the campanile of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli as another possibility in this case; unlike Santa Marta’s, it survives, not far to the east, which ‘would associate the island in the distance with San Giorgio in Alga, with the moon setting behind it. However, the more usual interpretation is that the moon is rising, seemingly lending support to the connection with Santa Marta, which might be viewed from the west in conjunction with the island convent of Santa Chiara’,12 to the north-east, near the north-western entrance to the Grand Canal. This potential prospect is now obscured by the docks, while the former convent serves the city’s main police station, overlooking the railway station.
There are pencil sketches of San Nicolò in the 1840 Venice; Passau to Würzburg sketchbook (Tate D31288–D31289; Turner Bequest CCCX 6a, 7), and Santa Chiara may be seen beyond a campanile in the contemporary Venice and Botzen book (D31851; CCCXIII 31a), a page perhaps also associated with D32125, the other ‘Santa Marta’ colour study. Warrell’s ‘third possibility is that the church is intended as the Gesuiti, with the island of San Michele to the north, though this would remove Turner some distance from the vicinity in which the rest of the studies were made in this roll sketchbook.’13 The church, along the Fondamenta Nuove, is also seen in the Venice and Botzen book (D31891–D31892; CCCXIII 51a, 52).
As well as producing many original watercolour views of Venice, the widely travelled artist Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (1821–1906) was in the habit of making sympathetic if often rather loose transcriptions from earlier artists he admired. He copied several examples from Turner’s 1840 visit in the Bequest, including this one;14 see also under Tate D32154, D32156, D32207, D32209, D32216 (Turner Bequest CCCXVI 17, 19, CCCXVII 22, 24, 31). A more direct copy by Ruskin’s pupil Isabella Lee Jay (working 1868–96) was among others of hers in the Ruskin collection at Bembridge School (now at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster).15
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.214.
Ibid., footnote 3, and p.611; see also Finberg 1909, II, p.1017’ as ‘Venice suburb; moonlight’.
Phythian 1910, p.104.
Finberg 1930, p.171.
Wilton 1975, p.138.
Stainton 1985, p.55; see also Lyles 1992, p.83.
See Warrell 1995, p.110, and Warrell 2003, p.188.
Warrell 1995, p.111.
See Warrell 2003, p.188; see also Taft 2004, p.94.
See Jeff Cotton, ‘Santa Marta’, The Churches of Venice, accessed 20 July 2018, http://www.churchesofvenice.co.uk/dorsoduro2.htm#santamarta.
Warrell 2003, p.188.
Ibid., p.188.
Ibid., p.264 note 29.
See Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (1821–1906), exhibition catalogue, Chris Beetles, London 1989, reproduced in colour p.[14], p.[45] no.5, as ‘Venice, Moonrise’.
See Warrell 1995, p.98.
Technical notes:
The disk of the moon was lifted out from the surrounding washes, and its reflections were scratched out.
Blank; inscribed in pencil ‘7’ circled centre; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CCCXV – 10’ bottom left; inscribed in pencil ‘N.G. 66’ bottom centre, and ‘CCCXV – 10’ bottom right.
There is a large area of staining or pale grey wash at the bottom left, and splashes or offsets of blue colour down the right-hand side, towards what was originally the sketchbook’s gutter.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Venice by Moonlight, with Boats off a Campanile 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-venice-by-moonlight-with-boats-off-a-campanile-r1196837, accessed 14 May 2021.