Intimate Distance: Thomas Stothard’s and J.M.W Turner’s illustrations of Samuel Rogers’s Italy

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Despite being one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century, Samuel Rogers’s Italy (1830) is little known today. The book’s popularity was largely due to its giftbook-like quality, and its lavish illustrations by J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Stothard. Italy broke new ground both culturally and materially. Unlike previous writers, Rogers, as a connoisseur of medieval Italian art, tended to favour the Italian peninsula’s medieval and Renaissance, rather than classical, past. This aspect of Italy’s cultural heritage had been growing in popularity during the Napoleonic Wars and Rogers answers his audience’s demands for this novel Italy by blending together original and translated poetry with sections on history, folklore, artists’ biographies, travel, art history, antiquarian subjects and observations on contemporary life. Rogers’s commissioning of steel-engraved illustrations by Turner and Stothard was crucial in attracting this audience and represents a key growth point in the development of Romantic-period book illustration. Although Turner’s landscape illustrations have received attention from both critics and curators, they are often treated in isolation away from the text as a whole. In contrast, Stothard’s illustrations, which centre on human figures, are often glossed over. Yet Stothard’s popularity as an artist, and his long-standing reputation for authenticity in the representation of historical figures, were key elements in the success of Italy. This essay seeks to redress this imbalance by reading the illustrations in relation to each other as well as the portions of the verbal text they seek to depict, enhance or revise. Although Turner and Stothard offer potentially competing visions of Rogers’s text, each of them conflates Italy’s past with verbal passages that are depicted as happening in the present moment. The combination of the past and present which runs throughout the text as a whole, mediates the reader-viewer’s proximity to and intimacy with Italy. The placement and content of the illustrations, when taken together and read in dialogue with Rogers’s text, create for the reader a kind of intimate distance with the people, literature, landscape and history of the Italian peninsula, a quality which encouraged the aesthetically-driven consumption of both Italy and Italy throughout the nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRomanticism and Illustration
EditorsIan Haywood, Susan Matthews, Mary L. Shannon
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Print)9781108425711
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019
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