Colour Room 1

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Lecture Diagram: Colour Circle No.1’ c.1824–8
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Lecture Diagram: Colour Circle No.1 c.1824–8

Turner used this diagram in a lecture on perspective. He wanted to show his students how to use colour to create the illusion of depth in a flat painting. Using the three primaries, he shows how the colours in light behave when they are represented in watercolour materials. Blue and red stand for degrees of shade, while yellow suggests light itself. Turner’s use of the colour circle is a reference to Goethe’s Theory of Colours

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Venice: The Doge’s Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni, from the Bacino’ 1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice: The Doge’s Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni, from the Bacino 1840

Venice by day was transformed by its unique combination of light and water. Turner used white paper to enhance the clarity of his transparent watercolour washes. His Venetian watercolours are saturated with warm yellows and browns and limpid green or blue to suggest the dazzling intensity of the sun and a sense of healthy serenity.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets’ c.1840
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, Night Scene with Rockets c.1840

Turner relished the Sublime effects of darkness. Its mysterious and elusive charm could stir the emotions in passionate and disquieting ways, for example in his night-time scenes of Venice. While for Newton and Goethe darkness was merely a negation of light, Turner expressed it positively in his works using colour. Intense, matt pigments applied to paper with a reddish ground could be dramatically offset by touches of bright white.

‘The ark stood firm on Ararat; th’returning sun Exhaled earth’s humid bubbles, and emulous of light, Reflected her lost forms, each in prismatic guise Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.’
J.M.W. Turner

This is a verse from Turner’s poem, The Fallacies of Hope. The lines accompanied Turner’s painting Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis and drew upon Goethe’s ideas of the ‘prismatic’ colour visible in bubbles and the symbolic associations of colours.

(To learn more about this work you can watch Cecilia Powell’s film about Turner’s paintings responding to Goethe in this room of the exhibition.)