Turner’s technical skill: the making of a watercolour

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum. 1818, watercolour, over traces of graphite on wove paper, 14 x 21.6 cm. Gift of F.J. Nettlefold, Nutley, Sussex, England, 1948. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo NGC


In the restoration and conservation laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada, we have the privilege of examining works of art under microscopes using high magnification. Even seemingly flat objects, such as watercolours, can have highly textured surfaces with distinctive traits, like landscapes. Investigating these very small features can reveal evidence of an artist’s techniques and provide clues about its place in history. Understanding the materials that these artworks are made of in terms of chemical composition and physical attributes, as well as knowing about how technological developments and social trends have influenced choices of materials is part of my work as a conservator. The following are some observations about an interesting work that was recently in the laboratory for examination.

The work and its making : Forum Romanum is a watercolour by J.M.W. Turner, the celebrated painter of the 18th and 19 century renowned for creating expressive, often turbulent landscapes and marine paintings.  One of the principal visual artists of the English Romantic Movement, he created this work on paper in 1818. The watercolour was created as part of a publishing project organized by the architect James Hakewill. The Englishman had travelled though Italy as part of a ‘Grand Tour’, a long tradition which saw wealthy or sponsored European men and women travel through Europe in search of art, culture and the roots of ‘Western civilization.’  While on tour, Hakewill made sketches of notable landmarks with plans to publish an illustrated topographical study of his observations, titled A Picturesque Tour of Italy.  In this pre-photographic era, books were illustrated with black-and-white prints, usually etchings or engravings. Turner, then aged 43, was already a well-respected illustrator and printmaker and a valuable name to attach to the project. Working from Hakewill’s sketches, the artist created this finished watercolour in England. Turner had not yet been to Rome, travelling to Italy only the following year, in 1819. In preparation for the printing of Hakewill’s book, Turner worked closely with professional engravers to create print versions of his illustration. It was common practice for artists to supply professional engravers with coloured pictures, as they had an understanding of how to create black-and-white tones representative of the colours used the artist.

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum, detail of group of figures in the foreground.  Photo NGC


The subject : The watercolour shows a view of the Roman Forum with a group of tourists and guides in the foreground. There are other figures scattered throughout the scene, including some who are removing soil from an archaeological dig. This illustrates one of the earliest organized excavations of this site. To today’s museum professionals, this scene is especially interesting as it captures a moment at the cusp of a significant cultural shift that relates to interpretation of historic sites, collections, heritage preservation and travel-tourism. At the time of Turner’s watercolour, there was a fascination with national and ethnic cultural origins, and archaeology was starting to be pursued with scientific rigour. Colonial power fuelled rampant collecting of archaeological artefacts for both personal and national interests. Seeing what lay below the soil of the Roman Forum had been deemed more important than imagining it.

Giacomo Brogi, attributed to. Rome. Roman Forum with the Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Julian Basilica. c. 1856–1881, albumen silver print, 19.9 x 25.6 cm. Gift of Donald C. Thom, Ottawa, 1980. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo NGC


By the mid-19th century, the forum had been transformed from a picturesque and inspirational cattle pasture from which peeked the ruins of ancient Rome  – “Campo Vaccino” depicted by many well-known artists over three centuries – into a fully developed archaeological site and tourist destination.  A photograph in the NGC collection made sometime around 1860, forty years after Turner’s image, shows the same location with 2.5 to 3 metres of soil removed. The lower parts of the columns and buildings are revealed, including the base of the Tempio dei Castori, the three columns that are a main feature of the Turner watercolour painting.

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum, detail of female figure seated in foreground.  Photo NGC


The structure : Moving in closely on some of the features not usually visible, one discovers the 1.5 cm tall figure sitting on a cornice in the foreground has been painted with about twenty-five small brushstrokes using five different colours.  Under even higher magnification, topographical features of the paper and paint layers can be seen. The paper’s structure, as a matted layer of plant fibers, becomes apparent. The colours can be seen sitting on the surface of the paper, sometimes pooled around paper fibers but not absorbed. This is an often misunderstood attribute of watercolour paintings.  Watercolour paints are composed of pigments – very small chunks of coloured material stuck to the surface of the support with a weak, water-soluble binder (usually gum Arabic). They do not react with the paper surface or tint the paper fibers such as dyes or some inks do; instead, they sit on the surface in thin layers.

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum, detail of the paint layers on the shoulder of the female figure seated in foreground.  Photo NGC


Paint and its use: Before the 19th century, most artists made their own paints. During Turner’s lifetime, however, pre-made cakes of very finely ground pigments mixed with gum Arabic and honey could be purchased specifically for watercolour painting. I cannot verify whether Turner made his own paints or used pre-made cakes for this particular work, but it is notable that commercial development of watercolour paints happened in conjunction with the medium being regarded as a ‘serious’ artistic endeavour and Turner was at the vanguard of this trend.

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum, detail the Arch and the two figures on the side. Photo NGC


Tricks of the trade: Another technical development in watercolour painting can be observed in the white on the woman’s shoulders that has been created by removal of surface layers of paint and paper with a sharp blade. This technique, sometimes called ‘scraping’, creates highlights by exposing the white paper fibers. Examination under magnification shows that Turner was adept at this technique and used it extensively. Most areas of white on the figures and architecture have been defined by scraping. Keeping in mind this is a small work, Turner was able to do this with surgical precision. Two figures on the steps in front of the arch of Septimius Severus, for example, are only 3 mm in height. Tiny scrapes to the shoulder and leg of the standing figure allowed Turner to create the appearance of a clothed, three-dimensional form.  

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum,  detail of the paint and paper. Photo NGC


The paper: When we look at the exposed and lifted fibers, we can see that they are perky, translucent and glassy. They create distinct highlights even after 200 years. These qualities have endured because the fibers making up this paper are of very high quality. At the time this watercolour was made, European-made paper was 100% recycled material, made from old textiles. Before the era of colonialism and the industrial revolution, available rags would have been mostly linen, hemp and other relatively regional (northern) crops. While these are excellent papermaking fibers when processed properly, Turner’s career fell at a period in history when cotton – a fiber cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions of America and India – had become the major commodity fuelling the British Empire. 

Paper supply: By the late 1700s, cotton scraps and rags would have been readily available in England for papermakers to incorporate into their products. Unlike other plant materials used for paper, the hair-like extensions that grow from the outer cells of cotton seeds are made up of almost pure cellulose and very little processing is needed to remove impurities that can lead to yellowing and deterioration. The fibers visible here were imported to England as raw cotton from India or plantations of the American South and then processed into fabric in an English textile mill.  The cotton cloth was sold, used for garments, bedding and much else and, when worn out beyond use, sold as rags to a paper mill, macerated back to individual fibers and made into paper. It is almost certain that this paper was made at the Whatman papermill in Kent, England. This company was the first to specialize in producing cotton-based papers specifically for use with watercolours, and Turner was known to use their products. With a coating of hardened gelatin to decrease the natural absorbency of the fibers, paper manufactured from recycled cotton textiles provides the hard and luminous surface on which Turner created this artwork.

J.M.W. Turner (after James Hakewill). Forum Romanum, detail of the signature. Photo NGC; Examples of writing with a quill and an ink pen. Photo NGC


Signature : An endearing detail that also places this work of art at the end of an era is the tiny signature at lower right, each letter only 2 mm in height and written with a quill.  This 1300-year-old writing tool was phased out by the introduction of mass-produced steel dip-pens within ten years of the completion of Turner’s watercolour. We can be confident that the signature was written with a quill because of the two parallel lines that make up some parts of the script.  A feather is made into a pen by a series of specific cuts that hold the ink and allow it to flow. The resulting nib has two ‘tines’ which, if cut finely enough for this tiny script, would be quite flexible and separate under light writing pressure, creating the type of two lines seen in Turner’s signature.


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