The watercolour is based on a composition by John Robert Cozens (1752–97) that the older artist realised as a watercolour (see figure 1) and that was based, at least partly, on a sketch that he inscribed ‘Part of the Nemi from the banks of the Lake / Septr 1777’ (see the source image above). The Monro School works were almost without exception not made from Cozens’ watercolours, being copied instead from the outlines or tracings that he made on the spot or produced as part of his general working practice. In this case the buildings in the Cozens watercolour may tally with the Monro School copy, but there are fundamental differences in the form of the landscape, which led Andrew Wilton to conclude that the Monro School copy ‘combines features of both’ the outline and the studio work (Wilton, 1980a, p.43). Given that it is highly unlikely that Monro had access to both works by Cozens, it is possible that the differences between them and the Monro School drawing can be explained by the fact that Turner and Girtin worked from a lost on-the-spot sketch that Cozens himself departed from for artistic reasons. A more likely explanation for the differences between the two watercolours, however, is that Girtin initially worked from the incomplete outline illustrated here but then improvised the missing lower section.
The case that the Monro School drawing includes an accurate view of the town on the hill but invents the lakeside landscape is supported by a watercolour by Thomas Jones (1742–1803), which was taken from almost exactly the same spot (see figure 2). Jones’ work tellingly does not include the building shown improbably clinging to the cliff to the left of the Monro School drawing, but it correctly depicts the form of the cliff to the right, which is shown as a muddled and spatially incoherent mass by Turner and Girtin. Jones inscribed his painting ‘TEMPLUM DIANAE’ (Temple of Diana) at the bottom left, identifying the area under the hill as the location of the temple that was dedicated to the goddess after whom the lake – the Speculum Dianae, or Mirror of Diana – was known in Roman times. The Monro School drawing characteristically omits any reference to the site’s classical associations, which were critically important for the British artists who actually travelled to Italy and who needed to cater for the interests of their classically educated customers.
The majority of the Italian scenes sold at Monro’s posthumous sale were attributed to Turner alone, and this remained the case until the publication of Wilton’s pioneering article in 1984, since when the joint attribution of the Monro School works to Turner and Girtin has increasingly become the norm (Wilton, 1984a, pp.8–23). This work is comparatively heavily worked by Turner so that whatever pencil work by Girtin that underlies it has largely been effaced. Arguably, there is just enough still visible to indicate Girtin’s involvement, and there is nothing to suggest that the work departs from the division of labour that the artists themselves described to Farington in 1798 as characterising their work at Monro’s home.