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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore - Early Morning 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore – Early Morning 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXI 4
Watercolour on white wove paper, 223 x 287 mm
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘4’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXI – 4’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Although he presumably had no doubt as to the subject, Finberg subsequently annotated his laconic 1909 Inventory title (‘Venice’) with ‘San Giorgio. (J.P.H.)’,1 the initials of the etcher and collector John Postle Heseltine (1843–1929), whose occasional suggestions are noted in copies of the Inventory at Tate Britain. In another copy he simply noted: ‘S. Giorgio’.2 The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated another copy: ‘San Giorgio from the Dogana, sunrise’.3 The view is east-south-east across the Bacino to the west front of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name. The alignment of the various features of the church and surrounding buildings indicates a viewpoint at the entrance to the Grand Canal opposite the Punta della Dogana, likely outside the Palazzo (or Ca’) Giustinian (later the Hotel Europa); beyond to the left is the waterfront on the north side of the Canale di San Marco towards the Giardini Pubblici.4
Allowing for inevitable slight differences in detail and emphasis, a pencil drawing in the smaller contemporary Milan to Venice sketchbook effectively presents an identical view (Tate D14442–D14443; Turner Bequest CLXXV 66a–67, the second page being only a brief continuation). Lindsay Stainton has carefully specified how the ‘pale sun, more visible from its reflection in the water than from its image in the sky, has risen about two hours above the horizon’5 in this watercolour, raising the issue of whether Turner recorded such an apparently specific effect directly. Compared with the more prosaic pencil drawing, small but significant differences in proportion and detail might suggest it was done spontaneously and independently to catch the effects of light and atmosphere,6 although Barry Venning has categorised it as the type of considered work Turner might have made from a combination of memory and reference to his sketches, ‘probably during the evenings at his lodgings’.7 However, Ian Warrell has considered it ‘evident that some or all’ of the Como and Venice sketchbook watercolours of the city (D15254–D15256, D15258; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 4–7) ‘were painted directly in front of the motif, most obviously’ this one and D15256, which shows the Dogana across the Grand Canal from the same viewpoint:
Even Turner himself rarely surpassed the revelatory immediacy these works possess in their presentation of a moment defined by light. ... Clearly painted relatively quickly after one another, the watercolours capture the brilliance of the sun an hour or two after it has risen. Both works are restrained, combining a deft use of the white paper with planes of blue-grey colour to suggest the blinding dazzle, making the objects seen against the light appear essentially flat.8
Nevertheless, Warrell has conceded that there was likely some subsequent work to develop the image: ‘Away from this glare, Turner subtly introduced more colour’.9 Finberg had described in some detail the ‘early morning effect’ with the buildings ‘dark against a pale sky flushed near the horizon with yellow light’:
The Palladian façade of the church is completely lost, but the light catches the northern side of the belfry, the dome and turrets, and the conventual buildings. The tower and ship-yards at the end of the Riva degli Schiavoni are a pale mass against the yellow flush of the sky. The surface of the water, which is lighter than the sky, passes from pale yellow in the distance into exquisite greys, blues and greens, as it approaches the foreground. In its calmness, precision and a certain virginal coolness, this drawing differs widely from the later Venetian water-colours with which we are all familiar, but it is a marvel of subtle and accurate vision, and in itself a most lovely thing.10
His measured comments set the precedent for the more fulsome, occasionally lyrical praise of a considerable number of later commentators, often in the context of the other three Venice watercolours, for which see the sketchbook’s Introduction.11
Andrew Wilton has characterised this one as a ‘breathtaking vision’ and ‘one of the most memorable of all the Italian watercolours’.12 Several have noted that the bright tonal effect was assisted by the white of the paper reflected back through the watercolour, and ‘left to tell in its own right through the most delicate of translucent washes’, as Martin Butlin has put it, in ‘a perfect expression of the freshness of early morning, Turner’s summary modelling in flat washes being ideally suited to the contre-jour effect’.13 Edward Croft-Murray suggested that its ‘exquisitely sensitive appreciation of light and atmosphere ... anticipates the well-known impressions of Venice of twenty years later’.14 In practical terms, having produced his own interpretation, the watercolourist Mike Chaplin has noted: ‘This is a deceptively simple painting, full of light. It is important that the tonal recession is finely balanced to achieve this sense of space’;15 Stainton has described how the ‘hazy light softens the forms of the buildings and veils the sun, which adds to the magic of the effect’.16
Guy Weelan called it a ‘miraculous watercolour’, analysing the subtle ‘[m]odulations’ of tone and the simplified forms of ‘rectangles, a vertical, and a few gently curving lines. The silhouette of the city in the distance has been reduced to a single pale line veiled in pearly mist and devoid of relief’. He described Turner’s ‘pure, gossamer, crystalline light, a light that, even here, had already begun to consume and slash into forms’ with the ‘directness of ... rediscovered innocence’, concluding: ‘It was the first time he had not confused light with lighting, and he would never do so again’.17 Cecilia Powell also touched on the evocation of ‘innocent, pearly morning’.18 Discussing Turner in relation to Shelley’s contemporary poetry, Michael O’Neill, Professor of English at Durham University, has described how ‘the church holds its visible shape in the presence, but it also floats in the greens, greys, and yellows of a post-dawn sky and reflection-laden lagoon. The image is a quiet annunciation: the world of Venice, freighted by history (former greatness, subsequent decline), seems reborn’.19
Stainton has observed that this watercolour and another showing the Dogana (D15256, as already mentioned), effectively form a panorama,20 and stated that the oil painting The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842 (Tate N00372),21 was ‘based on’ them.22 Ian Warrell has noted that the 1819 pencil drawing D14442, mentioned above, in conjunction with others in the Milan to Venice book continuing the view to the right (Tate D14389, D14417; Turner Bequest CLXXV 40, 54), could have been utilised.23
Undated MS note by A.J. Finberg (died 1939) in interleaved copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Undated MS note by Finberg in copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Undated MS note by C.F. Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
See Stainton 1985, p.42, and Warrell 2003, p.88.
See Herold 1997, p.48.
Venning 2003, p.156.
Warrell 2003, p.88; see also Warrell 2008, p.57.
Ibid.; see also further discussion in Warrell 2008, p.57.
Finberg 1930, p.22.
Including comments from Clark and others 1959, p.264, Butlin 1962, pp.10, 36, Croft-Murray 1963, p.10, Kitson 1964, p.81, Gowing 1966, p.16, Butlin 1975, p.38, Herrmann 1975, p.231, Wilton 1979, p.142, Gaunt and Hamlyn 1981, p.[60], Weelan 1982, p.66, Wilton 1982, p.40, Powell 1984, p.43, Stainton 1985, p.42, Powell 1987, p.16, Brown 1990, p.163, Perkins 1990, p.37, Bockemühl 1993, p.61, Gaunt and Hamlyn 1994, p.60, John Golding, ‘Turner’s Last Journey’ in Lloyd and others 1996, p.166, Michael Lloyd, ‘Being There’, ibid., p.189, Venning 2003, p.157, Jan Morris and Ian Warrell in Warrell 2003, pp.12 and 16 respectively, and Warrell 2008, pp.57, 67 note 1.
Wilton 1979, p.142.
Butlin 1962, p.36, and 1975, p.38; see also Stainton 1982, p.20.
Croft-Murray 1963, p.17; see also Stainton 1982, p.20..
Chaplin 2010, p.64; the various stages of his version are reproduced pp.65–7.
Stainton 1985, p.42.
Weelan 1982, p.66.
Powell 1998, pp.80–1.
O’Neill 2008, p.10.
See Stainton 1985, pp.33, 42; see also Warrell 2003, p.88.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.245–6 no.396, pl.400 (colour).
Stainton 1985, p.33.
Warrell 2003, p.263 note 6; see also Warrell 2008, pp.57, 67 note 3.
Technical notes:
The work was painted within the Como and Venice sketchbook, the first eight leaves of which where mounted in 1935 (see the book’s Introduction); all of them were trimmed slightly irregularly at the gutter on the left, with the edges of the stitching holes being evident here and there.
Ian Warrell has observed that the apparently adventitious traces of brown watercolour along the bottom edge may have bled from the foreground of one of the earlier subjects (D15251–D15253; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 1–3).1
Undated note, Tate catalogue files.
Blank; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CLXXXI – 4’ towards bottom left, inscribed in pencil ‘CLXXXI – 4’ bottom centre, and in pencil ‘CLXXXI. 4 | Venice’ towards bottom right.

Matthew Imms
March 2017

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore – Early Morning 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2017, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, July 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-venice-san-giorgio-maggiore-early-morning-r1186394, accessed 28 May 2024.