The Mare’s Nest: A History of Provenance
Turner The Pheonix

Please note this history is a work of fiction by the artist Rory Macbeth. See the Tate collection for information about the artwork.

JMW Turner with additions by Percy Bysshe Shelley The Phoenix 1814 Oil on canvas, from Art Now Live Work, Rory Macbeth essays

J.M.W. Turner with additions by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Phoenix 1814
Oil on canvas

This view of Elba where Napoleon was exiled after his abdication in 1814, was commissioned by the poet Byron’s then lover, the Contessa Guiccioli, to celebrate the end of the Emperor’s tyranny. For Turner the blood-red sky referred to the blood lost through Napoleon’s many wars, and the sunset was an emblem of the end of his reign as Emperor.

The painting was to be taken to the Contessa in Italy in person by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife Mary, whom Turner had met through her father. France’s liberation from Napoleon’s grip meant that travel to Italy was suddenly possible overland, especially for the English who had for so long been one of France’s many enemies.

However, on the crossing to France news arrived that Napoleon had escaped Elba, had re-declared himself Emperor, and was marching on Paris with a huge army at his disposal. Seeing the danger they were in by being in possession of a painting celebrating the demise of Napoleon, the quick thinking Shelley daubed the figure of the Emperor on the work, and the inscription on the back ‘The Phoenix’ after the mythical bird that rises from its own destruction, thus ensuring both their safety and that of the painting.

The couple managed to negotiate a safe passage to Switzerland and on to Italy, where they delivered the painting to the Contessa. The Contessa, however, was no great connoisseur of painting, and was delighted that it depicted such a dejected looking Napoleon. That he was so clumsy a stick man who was wildly out of proportion (he would be at least ten metres tall proportionally to the landscape!), seemed of little importance to her, and the story of this addition was kept from her. Byron, however was delighted by the daring history behind it, and included the episode in an unfinished short story he wrote on Lake Geneva as part of the story-writing games that famously gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, (much literary criticism has been centered on how this episode, and Napoleon’s (brief) return to power shaped her story).

The painting remained in Italy, simply as a Turner in family collections until it was anonymously donated in 1902 to the Tate to join the greatest collection of Turners in the world. Again here it was still assumed the entire work was Turner’s – in spite of the crudity of the figure, (Turner was never the most refined figure painter in the traditional sense, but his figures always merged enigmatically with the landscape). It was not till the resurgence of interest in Romanticism in the early sixties, that the true story of Turner’s accomplice in the work emerged.

The story was a sensation when it broke, and it was public opinion that convinced the Tate not only to keep the figure (there was a strong lobby of purists who wanted the work restored to Turner’s original vision), but to actually credit the clumsy hand of Shelley.

The picture then started to receive a new popular provenance, as a result of its connection to the singer Marc Bolan and the new generation of Romantics emerging from the student riots and anti-Vietnam war protests of the late sixties. Marc Bolan, like many at the time, was enchanted not only by the story and the bringing together of such great names of art and literature, but also by the vibrant shimmering of Turner’s palette that had so much in common with his own era’s psychedelia. And it was about this work that he wrote his hit The Children of the Revolution, which in turn became the anthem for his generation. It was his decidedly shaky sense of French history, mixed with a predilection for psychedelic drugs, that gave rise to the song and then the popular misconception that this painting was an icon for Romantic revolutionaries everywhere. The popularity of the image was aided by it featuring on the cover on the album and single. To this day, on the anniversary of Bolan’s death, the area around the work becomes a temporary, unofficial shrine, and is laid with flowers, gifts and poems, not only to Bolan, but to the Shelleys, Byron, and Turner too.