Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Group of Partly Draped Female Figures, Possibly the Fates from ‘The Golden Bough’


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

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil on board
Support: 85 x 147 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 395

Catalogue entry

This unusual survival is in oils on what Finberg described as ‘tracing paper’.1 It shows a carefully finished group of reclining women, among and partly covered by red and black draperies, trimmed to the edges of the figures. Two on the left raise their arms in graceful gestures; the grouping to the right is less legible, with at least three reclining nudes, two of whom face each other while a third looks up to the right, again gesturing with her arm, albeit in this case truncated above the elbow.
Although close examination suggests five figures, the third and fourth are relatively inconspicuous, and John Gage has proposed that the group represents ‘the three Fates’, which had been ‘apparently drawn in a sketchbook in the life class of the Academy, cut out, and glued on the canvas’ of Turner’s mythological painting The Golden Bough, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834 (Tate N00371).2 This would account for the anecdote recounted by Gage, that when the painting was subsequently owned by Robert Vernon ‘this paper began to peel, and the artist was called in to make a repair. He removed the paper and kept it, repainting the group on the canvas ... with only two figures facing away ... and with no attributes to identify them’.3 Gage has compared them with the Fates seated and reclining in the foreground of Turner’s large Vision of Medea, exhibited during his stay in Rome in 1828 and again at the Royal Academy in 1831 (Tate N00513).4
Gage gave the source of the repainting story as an 1878 letter to the Times from Vernon Heath, Robert Vernon’s nephew.5 Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll have quoted one version of Turner’s words as reported by Heath;6 the original letter reads in part:
‘I remember now. Why, the figure is merely a piece of paper cut out of my pocket-book;’ and he explained that when the picture was nearly finished he determined to introduce the figure, and with that intention he went one night to the life school. It was the study there made which, having put on his picture, not only passed through the Exhibition, but remained there for some five or six years after the picture was in Mr. Vernon’s possession.7
Finberg 1909, II, p.1209.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.204–5 no.355, pl.359 (colour).
Gage 1974, p.74.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.171–2 no.293, pl.295 (colour).
Gage 1974, p.86 note 42.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.205.
Times, 23 April 1878, p.5.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.147–8 no.239, pl.237 (colour).

Matthew Imms
September 2016

Read full Catalogue entry