Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Group of Figures round an Infant; the Sails of a Boat


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Chalk on paper
Support: 436 x 271 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXXI 147

Catalogue entry

The drawing of the sails of a boat is a very slight outline sketch in black chalk, presumably related to the ideas Turner develops elsewhere in this book for marine paintings such as Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board (‘The Bridgewater Seapiece’), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801 (private collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London),1 and The Shipwreck of 1805 (Tate N00476).2
The figures are drawn in pen and do not relate to the sails. They may be connected with other figure studies in the sketchbook, for example on folios 1 recto, 18 recto, 22 recto and 23 verso–24 recto (D04902, D04936, D04943, D04946–D04947; Turner Bequest LXXXI 1, 35, 41, 44–45). The theme of a man and woman looking down at a baby seems to be common to several, but it is difficult conclusively to identify their subject as a Holy Family, although there are also studies in this sketchbook for the painting that Turner exhibited as the Holy Family at the Royal Academy in 1803 (Tate N00473).3
It is not clear whether the gesturing man on the left of this group is a duplication of the gesturing figure on the right, or whether there are one or two infants in the right–hand group. If there are two, are they to be identified with the two indicated on the left, or are those on the left not alternatives, but part of the same subject and looking at those on the right? It is more likely that the infant on the right has merely been drawn with its head in two different positions.
These speculations may be of little importance, but there is a clear suggestion that this is an idea for a picture quite separate from the exhibited Holy Family. It is possibly a Holy Family with St John the Baptist, but that subject traditionally involves a child older than the very young infant shown on the right. In his studies for an unexecuted picture, ‘The Water turned to Blood’, illustrating the first plague of Egypt, Turner introduces adult figures grouped round children; see folios 22 verso–23 recto and 77 verso–78 recto (D04944–D04945, D05054–D05055; Turner Bequest LXXXI 42–43, 152–153). This drawing may relate to that subject.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.12–13 no.14, pl.11 (colour).
Ibid., p.43 no.54, pl.64 (colour).
Ibid., pp.38–9 no.49, pl.60.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

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