Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage - Italy by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Exhibited 1832. Oil on canvas, 1422 x 2483 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain (Accession no. NO0516. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.) Click on image to enlarge it.

Commentary from Tate Britain Online (2004)

The title of this painting refers to Lord Byron’s long, epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (‘Childe’ is an archaic title for the son of a nobleman). Byron saw the remnants of Italy’s past as profoundly poignant: the country had, in the intervening years, lost both its liberty and integrity, but was still breathtakingly beautfiul. Turner showed his painting with these lines from Byron’s poem:

… and now, fair Italy!
Thou are the garden of the world.
Even in thy desert what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes' fertility:
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.’ [Canto 4]

The subject may have been partly influenced by the exhibition at the R.A. in 1829 of Eastlake's Lord Byron's Dream, painted in 1827 and now in the Tate Gallery. The vase among the still-life detail in the left foreground was originally stuck on as a piece of paper and subsequently painted over. The picture was quoted by Ruskin, in his Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House, as an example of the decay he saw as having occurred in many of Turner's works.

It was, once, quite the loveliest work of the second period, but is now a mere wreck. The fates by which Turner's later pictures perish are as various as they are cruel; and the greater number, whatever care be taken of them, fade into strange consumption and pallid shadowing of their former selves. Their effects were either attained by so light glazing of one colour over another, that the upper colour, in a year or two, sank entirely into its ground, and was seen no more; or else, by the stirring and kneading together of colours chemically discordant, which gathered into angry spots; or else, by laying on liquid tints with too much vehicle in them, which cracked as they dried; or solid tints, with too little vehicle in them, which dried into powder and fell off; or painting the whole on an ill-prepared canvas, from which the picture peeled like the bark from a birch-tree; or using a wrong white, which turned black; or a wrong red, which turned grey; or a wrong yellow, which turned brown. But, one way or another, all but eight or ten of his later pictures have gone to pieces, or worse than pieces—ghosts, which are supposed to be representations of their living presence. This “Childe Harold” is a ghost only. What amount of change has passed upon it may be seen by examining the bridge over the river on the right. There either was, or was intended to be, a drawbridge or wooden bridge over the gaps between the two ruined piers. But either the intention of bridge was painted over, and has penetrated again through the disappearing upper colour; or (which I rather think) the realization of bridge was once there, and is disappearing itself. Either way, the change is fatal; and there is hardly a single passage of colour throughout the cool tones of the picture which has not lost nearly as much. It would be less baneful if all the colours faded together amicably, but they are in a state of perpetual revolution; one staying as it was, and the others blackening or fading about it, and falling out with it, in irregular degrees, never more by any reparation to be reconciled. Nevertheless, even in its present state, all the landscape on this right hand portion of the picture is exquisitely beautiful—founded on faithful reminiscences of the defiles of Narni, and the roots of the Apennines, seen under purple evening light.’

See Tate Britain Online for full catalogue entry, including provenance, exhibition history, and bibliography (including mentions by Ruskin).

Last modified 15 May 2016