This little-known view of the headland on the eastern side of the harbour at Genoa is one of a handful of watercolours outside the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain that record a tour Turner made along the Mediterranean coast. With its strong and evocative use of bold colour, it magnificently blends Turner’s unique ability to distill the essence of a particular place with an economic, yet dynamic recreation of the endlessly shifting forces of the sea. The subtle pink tones of the buildings at the top of the scene suggest the glowing light of a summer afternoon and draw the eye upwards to the forts crowning the hills that surround Genoa. Another detail underlines the strength of Genoa’s defences: note the cannon situated centrally in the gap in the fortifications just off the centre of the image, the red lines of the walls giving it additional prominence. Above, to the left, the domed church, flanked by two towers, is Santa Maria Assunta, in the Carignano district. Designed by Galeazzo Alessi, it was begun in 1552, but the dome was not completed until 1603. As Nicolo de Mari has noted, this church is untypical of the traditional styles of Genoa but is a ‘feature of the city which can be admired from the sea and from afar’ (see Lorenzo Capellini, Genoa, 1998, p. 55).
Turner visited Genoa on at least two occasions. His best documented stay occurred in 1828, when he was making his way to Rome for the second time. He had travelled to Genoa from Marseilles during a particularly hot spell in September, and the journey along the coast revived and re-energised his unusually flagging spirits. After arriving in Rome about a month later, he enthused to his friend George Jones that ‘Genoa and all the sea from Nice to Spezia is remarkably fine and rugged.’ The experience of his 1828 travels is preserved in several sketchbooks, now in his bequest at Tate Britain.
Until recently it was thought that it was also on the 1828 visit that he painted a series of brightly coloured studies on sheets measuring around 5 by 7 inches (14 by 18 cm.), many of which depict either Marseille or Genoa. Ongoing research into a later tour, centered on Genoa, however strongly suggests that the port was the specific aim of his travels in 1838, when he revisited the Mediterranean coast, this time surveying the rocky cliffs both from the water and the route above, prior to his journey homewards via Sisteron in the Alpes-Maritimes (see the articles by Roland Courtot and Ian Warrell in Turner et la couleur, 2016, pp. 95-7, 109-111).
Turner’s time in Genoa in 1838 has not yet been confirmed by the discovery of precise dates in the local records, despite intensive searches by archivists. Nevertheless, a couple of pencil outlines in a sketchbook are annotated with dated inscriptions (an exceptional instance in itself) that support the link with 1838 (see Turner en France, 1981, pp. 487-496). Furthermore, as in the case of the 1828 tour, a group of sketchbooks can be arranged in a sequence to reconstruct the journey, and these were also supplemented by pencil and colour studies on a variety of paper types (buff, blue and grey).
The grey paper used for the majority of the coastal subjects, including the present view of the city, is of the same kind as that identified by Peter Bower as having been made by Bally, Ellen and Steart, originating at the De Montalt Mill in Bath. Significantly, in terms of rejecting 1828 as the date for these studies, the batches of grey paper used by Turner often have a watermark of 1829 (Turner’s Later Papers, 1999, pp. 105-6). The obvious deduction, therefore, is that this view, as well as the rest of the series, must date from the 1830s.
Because the date of the tour has only come into focus comparatively recently, there has not yet been a full survey of the related works. The difficulties of piecing these together is compounded by the fact that some are in the Tate collection, while others are scattered around in public and private collections. Whereas Andrew Wilton’s standard 1979 catalogue listing of works outside the Turner Bequest is comprehensive in most areas of the artist’s output, the Mediterranean views are not fully covered. Where they are included, they are invariably dated tentatively and their subjects have not always been correctly identified (see Literature note above).
Some assistance with the early history of the views of Genoa can be found in a series of notebooks in the Pantzer collection at Indianapolis Museum of Art. Compiled by Hannah Cooper, the niece of the stockbroker and important collector Charles Stokes, the books were partly transcribed by Martin Krause in 1997. A fuller reading of the notes and the marginal comments provides useful insights into how highly-rated these colour sketches were in the years immediately after Turner’s death.
Mrs Cooper inherited her uncle’s fine and truly representative collection of Turner works on paper, and then spent much of the 1850s refining and adding to it through sale and exchange, most often with John Ruskin. But she seems to have retained and cherished certain works despite Ruskin’s attempts to acquire them, including this sheet. Although her notebooks offer a vital snapshot of this process, the titles of works are often confusingly repetitive, as in the case of the group of views of Genoa, so it is not always possible to know exactly which work is being discussed. However, it is very probable that the present watercolour of Genoa was described by Mrs Cooper as ‘View on the Mediterranean Coast – Red fortress, road overhanging the sea’ (Cooper notebooks, vol. 1). She valued it at 50 guineas in her lists of 1858 and 1859 (Cooper notebooks, vol. 2, p. 24, no. 20 and p. 25, no. 23; Krause, 1997, p.271 [values not specified]).
It is not known exactly how or when the view of Genoa passed to the watercolour artist Myles Birket Foster, but he was certainly acquiring works by Turner before 1863, by which date he owned at least four drawings. A photograph of these works hanging at Birket Foster’s home, The Hill, at Witley in Surrey, was reproduced in Edward Yardley’s article about the collection (1988, p.41, fig.1). One of the group could very feasibly be this watercolour, although it is identified by Yardley as a different sheet (described there as ‘Ehrenbreitstein / Luxembourg’). The scale of the reproduction makes it difficult to be conclusive either way, especially as both works share a similar structure. However, only the view of Genoa has the extended line of lighter colour on the left side of the image. A visitor to Birket Foster’s home at the start of the 1890s noted that the grey paper scenes provided ‘a wonderful bouquet of colour, as full and rich as on the day on which the artist stayed his hand upon them’ (Marcus Huish, Art Journal Annual).
Subsequently Genoa from the Sea passed to Sir Donald Currie, chairman of the Union Castle Line, who used his considerable wealth to assemble arguably the greatest collection of Turner’s watercolours and oil paintings of the late nineteenth century. He was notable for his radical taste for works that were then overlooked because they were considered unfinished. It is only in the last couple of decades that his descendants have dispersed the works passed down to them, testifying to the astuteness of his acquisitions.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.