In the mid-1820s, as well as embarking on the hugely ambitious series of Picturesque Views in England and Wales (see lot 59), Turner and his publisher, Charles Heath, conceived a parallel project that was intended to focus on celebrated settings in Italy. Regrettably, in the challenging years after 1826, when financial uncertainty spread from a crash in America, the Picturesque Views in Italy was an early casualty, and never went on to appear in print. By that stage Turner had already painted at least three of the watercolours: Florence (W.726; British Museum, London), Arona, Lago Maggiore (W.730; Private collection) and the present view of Lake Albano (W.731). Resourcefully, Heath quickly repurposed the group as illustrations for his popular annual The Keepsake for the years 1828 and 1829; and at some point afterwards he sold all three to the avid Turner collector, Benjamin Godfrey Windus, in whose home they were among the works that shaped the young John Ruskin’s enthusiasm for the artist.
Although Turner revisited Italy in 1828, spending most of his time in Rome, it is evident that he must have completed this view of Lake Albano months before setting out that year. In fact the watercolour can be related to the pencil sketches Turner made in the Alban hills in 1819, during his first exploration of Italy. A sequence in the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook records how thoroughly he investigated the countryside bordering the lake and the Pope’s rural retreat of Castel Gandolfo at Albano (TB CLXXXII 3a-17, Tate).
In developing the watercolour, Turner synthesised these first-hand impressions of the actual setting with his analysis of a painting of the same scene by his great predecessor, Claude Lorrain (fig.1), now at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but then part of the Barberini collection in Rome. As Cecilia Powell demonstrated in 1984, the notes Turner made in his ‘Remarks’ (Italy) sketchbook reveal the underlying links between the two images, most notably how the use of the brightly coloured figures ‘keeps the Eye to the Centre’. Yet, even while Turner went on to assimilate all of Claude’s compositional traits, he ultimately surpassed and literally outshone his role model through his unique abilities to recreate light. The scene in his watercolour is flooded with a suffusing brilliance that emanates from the sun as it rises above Castle Gandolfo, thereby making this one of his finest responses to Italy. He had tested the dazzling effect in one of the many ‘colour beginnings’ – essentially experimental technical trials or structured colour ideas – that he habitually made by the 1820s (TB CCLXIII 324, Tate; illustrated in Warrell 2002, p.154).
In place of Claude’s rustic peasants, Turner included a ‘hunter’ and his colourfully-dressed ‘contadina’, as they were described by Mary Shelley in her description of the image published in The Keepsake for 1829. The man is more probably a brigand, but these local figure types were becoming increasingly familiar in the work of contemporary British artists, and reflected both the romantic appeal and dangers that might be encountered. Indeed, in Turner’s era, the countryside between Rome and Naples was notorious as a place where travellers risked their possessions, and sometimes their lives, at the hands of armed banditti. Turner had direct experience of this while he was in Rome, for his friend Francis Chantrey was held hostage by a group of banditti until he paid £100. It could be, therefore, that the third figure in his group, who is evidently an itinerant artist, represents Chantrey (rather than Turner himself, as has also been suggested). But a further option is that the traveller, whose pictures are clearly fascinating the bandit couple, is intended to be Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865), future President of the Royal Academy and Director of the National Gallery, whom he more closely resembles. Turner had known Eastlake many years and met up with him during his time in Rome in 1819; they would also share a studio there in 1828. This watercolour could even be seen as a personal tribute to Eastlake, painted around the time the younger artist was elected to the Royal Academy, in recognition of a body of work that included paintings and published images of Italian banditti.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.