This jewel-like watercolour was one of the first two watercolours commissioned by Edward Finden for his proposed publication with John Murray, to be accompanied by text by Byron's friend J.C. Hobhouse, Landscapes and Portrait Watercolours to the Life and Works of Lord Byron, first planned in 1830. Finden, writing to Hobhouse in October 1830, was able to state that 'I think I shall be able to complete the Engravings for the first portion in Jany or early Feby next ... Mr. Turner has undertaken to make the Drawings of Malta (see Fig. 1) and Gibraltar from very fine sketches and I expect them immediately upon his return to Town!'
It was not however among the illustrations already printed by the time Hobhouse finally withdrew his support, appearing as a frontispiece to Finden's revised scheme with text by W. Brockendon in 1833; the publishers stressed the 'new and beautiful frontispiece by Turner' in their publicity for the new edition. For the complex history of Finden's two Byron projects, the Landscape Illustrations and The Life and Works of Lord Byron, see Brown, op. cit., pp. 40-56.
Finden's engraving is inscribed 'Drawn by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., from a sketch by G. Reinagle'. George Reinagle had accompanied Admiral Codrington during the recent campaign in aid of Greek independence, and was probably responsible for the original drawing for Malta as well (Brown, op. cit., p. 100, no. 46, the engraving illustrated).
Byron's lines about Gibraltar in, Childe Harald, II, xxii, are rather understated, however Turner's illustration, which was positioned as the frontispiece, was probably meant to be interpreted as symbolic of the opening up at the Gates of Gibraltar of the whole world of the Mediterranean and the Levant:
Through Calpe's straights survey the sleepy shore;
Europe and Afric on each other gaze!
Lands of the dark-eyed Maid and dusky Moor
Alike beheld beneath pale Hecate's blaze:
How softly on the Spanish shore she plays,
Disclosing rock, and slope, and forest brown,
Distinct, though darkening with her waning phase;
But Mauritania's giant-shadows frown,
From mountain-cliff to coast descending sombre down.
No sign of Hecate's moon can be seen, but Turner sets off the two continents in the forms of the felucca on the left and the European ships on the right. The text refers to Byron's short stop at Gibraltar in 1809 on his way to Greece.
Turner's works clearly have an affinity to those of Byron and they may even have met, through Richard Belgrave Hoppner, son of the portrait-painter John Hoppner, who had supported Turner in his early career, or Samuel Rogers. Walter Fawkes may well have encouraged Turner's interest in Byron's poetry. When Turner visited the Continent in 1817 he took the guidebook by Charles Campbell, which quotes Byron's lines from Childe Harald on the Battle of Waterloo and clearly influenced Turner's Royal Academy exhibit of 1818. In the 1832 Royal Academy catalogue, Turner paid direct tribute to Byron in his Childe Harald's Pilgrammage. Further oil paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy with quotations from Childe Harold: The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrenbreitstein), 1835, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino, 1839, Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, 1840, and The Approach to Venice, 1844; the second state of the engraving after Juliet and her Nurse, Royal Academy 1836, also bears a quotation from the poem. Earlier, in 1822, Fawkes had commissioned, for an album of watercolours celebrating Farnley Hall, the watercolour illustration to Byron's The Giaour inscribed 'Tis living Greece no more', a protest against Turkish oppression. (Turner's interest in Byron is documented in Brown, op. cit., passim.).
The present watercolour is in exceptionally fine condition, revealing Turner's mastery of technique: his careful use of scratching out to depict the waves of the sea and his detailed, delicate brushstrokes for the buildings on the horizon. We also clearly see his ability to capture atmospheric conditions: the varied tones used to build the cloud masses, rushing overhead, propelled by the strong winds which also fill the billowing sales and stretch the flags on the ships taut.