Joseph Mallord William Turner

Dido Directing the Equipment of the Fleet, or the Morning of the Carthaginian Empire

exhibited 1828

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Not on display
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on board mounted on canvas
Support: 1473 x 2261 x 37 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Catalogue entry

241. [N00506] Dido directing the Equipment of the Fleet, or The Morning of the Carthaginian Empire Exh. 1828


Plywood, transferred from canvas, 59 × 89 (150 × 226)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (65, ‘Carthage (Mr. Broadhursts Commission)’ 7'6" × 5'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910; returned to National Gallery 1917 and to Tate Gallery 1968.

Exh. R.A. 1828 (70).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 306–7; 1877, p. 439; Hamerton 1879, p. 218 (repr. 1895 edn, facing p. 216); Bell 1901, p. 109 no. 156; Armstrong 1902, p. 219; MacColl 1920, p. 14; Whitley 1930, p. 146; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 303–4, 306, 487 no. 316; Lindsay 1966, p. 166; Reynolds 1969, p. 124; Gage 1980, p. 117; Ziff 1980, p. 169.

This picture was written off as a complete wreck after being transferred from its original canvas to plywood in 1917, following a long history of blistering; it had already been relined in 1871. It was then mislaid at the National Gallery and not rediscovered until 1968, when it was returned to the Tate Gallery. Sufficient original paint remains for there to be some possibility that the picture can be at least partially restored sometime in the future. At present, however, its surface is protected by mulberry paper.

There is a possible sketch for the picture in the ‘River’ sketchbook of c. 1823–4 (CCIV-7 verso) and a study among the drawings in pen and white chalk on blue paper done by Turner while staying with John Nash at East Cowes Castle in July–September 1827 (CCXXVII(a)-15). For this reason Finberg suggests that Turner may even have begun the painting there, on the full-length canvas that, in a letter written to his father during his stay, Turner suggested might be sent in addition to the 6 ft by 4 ft canvas used for the Cowes sketches, Nos. 260–68 [N01993-N02001].

Jerrold Ziff has pointed out that there are also two composition sketches among the drawings in ink and pencil on blue paper mainly connected with the French Rivers series (CCLX-7 and 8) and has also suggested that the four studies on the back of S. Lovegrove's letter to Turner of 19 November 1827 may be related (CCLXIII(a)-7; for the letter see Gage op. cit., pp. 112–13).

The Schedule of the Turner Bequest, supported by Thornbury suggests that the picture was painted for Mr Broadhurst, though he never seems to have owned it (see also No. 231). In June 1828 John Pye advertised for subscribers to an engraving of the picture, but this was never produced. It was the subject of a letter from Pye to Turner of 3 June 1828 which was endorsed by his brother, ‘I believe the plate was etched by my brother but it was not engraved by him’.

The picture was hung immediately below Thomas Phillips' full-length portrait of the Duke of Sussex at the head of the Great Room at the R.A., then at Somerset House, and was described there by the Literary Gazette for 3 May 1828 as ‘a very brilliant and powerful landscape.’ A week later, however, on 10 May, the Literary Gazette was more critical: ‘Visitor, before you venture to look at this picture pray take a hint from the pretty Peasant of Andernach (No. 78, by H. Howard, R.A.), and veil your sight as she does; or it will be over-powered by the glare of the violent colours here assembled. It is really too much for an artist to exercise so despotic a sway over the sun, as to make that glorious, and, as it has been hitherto supposed, independent luminary, act precisely in conformity to his caprice; pouring its rays on objects upon which they could not possibly fall, and hiding them from others in the direct line of their influence. There is scarcely a word of truth in the whole picture.’

The general consensus seems to have been that it was ‘extremely beautiful and powerful’ but ‘is like nothing in nature’ (The Times, 6 May, which also said, apropos the title, that it ‘might as well be called any thing else’). Or, as the Athenaeum for 7 May put it, it ‘is a remarkable and spirited composition; replete with ideas of beauty, and extremely brilliant, hardy, and powerful; but over-wrought in effect—hors de nature, tout à fait. The right-hand corner of the picture is wonderfully rich; and the introduction of the dark-green pine-tree is astonishingly bold.’ The Repository of Arts for June 1828, beginning with the general point that ‘where an artist has gained so much deserved celebrity in his profession as the academic professor of perspective, the repetition of his merits becomes a trite topic’, and likening Turner to those meteor-like spirits of the sun which ‘nourish and illumine our denser and more opaque orbs’, went on to praise the ‘richness of colouring’ of this picture: ‘the brilliant and glowing verdure on the left is in the highest degree fine: but whence comes the ruffling of the water? With such a serene and calm atmosphere, there ought not to be a ripple, even if a tide flowed into the ports of Carthage. The reflected light on the edifices upon the right bank is of an unpleasant buff-colour; perhaps Dido liked it; now we don't, and are glad it is only used as what the painters call priming in this country. The conception of this picture is, however, grand; its execution full of powers of the highest order; and the subject is one we must admit which gave the artist a great latitude in the management of details.’

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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