Curators must normally face a difficult task in balancing how they choose to develop the main intellectual themes of an exhibition with the cost and availability of the artefacts that they wish to bring together. However, such is the scale of the Turner bequest, the problem that Ian Warrell faced when setting up the Turner and Venice exhibition at the Tate Britain in 2003 must have been to decide what to omit.
A visit to the recent Turner and the Masters exhibition at Tate Britain (see http://roderick-random.blogspot.com/2009/11/jmw-turner-was-combative-character-who.html ) has sent me back to the Catalogue of Turner and Venice, which had lain unopened on my bookshelves for the past six years. I remember my impressions at the time: a compendious overview of the sketches, watercolours and exhibited works which arose as a result of Turner’s three short visits to Venice. The sketches were of marginal interest, the oil paintings were, of course, superb, but the highlight for me was the revelatory display of exquisite watercolours.
The problem at the gallery though was one of scale. 185 exhibits can challenge the stamina of the most dedicated aficionado, and I do remember flagging towards the end as I fought through the crowds.
No such problem with the catalogue, which examines Turner’s response to Venice in even greater detail – one has the time and space to peruse it at leisure, and it is well worthy of detailed examination. Turner, who lived his life by the Thames, was always drawn to water, so it is natural that Venice was included in his first major tour of Italy in 1819 (he had briefly crossed the Alps in 1802), although he only spent five days in Venice out of a six month trip. The impact was not immediate, as it was not until 1833 that he spent a week there and thereafter until 1846 he sent at least one view of Venice in all but two years to the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy. His third and final visit was in 1840 when he stayed from the 20th August to the 3rd September.
The catalogue is comprehensive. It sets out the historical context – Venice, after years of decline was broken by Napoleon and has now become a client of Austria, the wealth from trade long-since dissipated, and with it the glories of Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini. Canaletto and his followers had painted both Venice and London in precise detail and, by the 1820’s, with Byron’s romanticised vision of the decayed glories of Venice in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage riding high in the public consciousness, British artist such as Clarkson Stanfield, William Etty and Richard Parkes Bonington had started to respond in turn. By 1837, Thackery was able to complain that he was “weary of gondolas, striped shirts…and too many white palaces standing before dark purple skies”. Turner employed a similar viewpoint to that of Stansfield for their respective paintings of the Doge’s Palace both exhibited in 1833. But whereas Stansfield architectural lines echo the precise draughtsmanship of Canaletto, Turner’s smaller painting is focussed on the loose jumble of boats and the hazed reflections of buildings on the water.
However, the main body of the Exhibition focuses on the sketches and watercolours produced during Turner’s visits, and how some of these scenes were turned into full oil-paintings for exhibition. In the case of Turner’s 1840 visit, we are taken down the Grand Canal and across the Giudeca, stopping to look at how Turner responded to each scene in turn. The watercolours are superb, the watery light being subtly conveyed by delicate washes and a few deft flicks of the brush, many having the detail added in pencil or in pen dipped in watercolour.
It gives an insight into Turner’s creative process, obsessively sketching detail and capturing the effects of light in the watercolours for later reworking in oils in the Studio. For example, an 1833 pencil sketch of the Bacino with some hasty blue, brown and white highlights added, is believed to have become “Venice from the Canale della Giudeca, Chiesa di S. Maria della Salute etc”, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840. Even the great later works where the buildings of Venice barely emerge from a haze of mist and light are firmly rooted in Turner’s sketches and watercolours, and these connections are clearly set out in this illuminating exhibition and its exceptional catalogue.