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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 185 x 264 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVI E

Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘Jason.’, published J.M.W. Turner, ?11 June 1807
Turner based the Liber Studiorum design of Jason on his oil painting of the same title, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802 (519) and again – after adapting the composition for the Liber – at the British Institution in 1808 (394) as Jason, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis [sic]; the painting remained in his collection and formed part of the Turner Bequest (Tate N00471).1 Although the present drawing follows the main lines of the painting, it differs in many details: Jason and the dragon or serpent now occupy a more prominent proportion of the composition, and the obscure gloom of the painting is alleviated by light from above, though Turner did not revise the composition to include the golden fleece which was the object of the dragon’s protection and Jason’s quest in the well-known Greek myth, nor Jason’s future wife Medea, who used magic to send the dragon to sleep – thus enabling Jason to take the fleece without a fight.
Although Turner mentioned Ovid as his source in the title of the painting, he appears to have supplemented his reading in translation of the brief treatment in the Metamorphoses2 with the lengthier account given by Apollonius Rhodius.3 A rough pencil sketch of a snake under a rock in the Rhine, Strassburg and Oxford sketchbook (Tate D04788; Turner Bequest LXXVII 44) may have informed the original composition. There is a detailed study for the figure of Jason in the Calais Pier sketchbook (Tate D04908; Turner Bequest LXXXI 7); tree studies from nature may also have been referred to (for example, those in the Swans sketchbook: Tate D01793, D01794; Turner Bequest XLII 118–119).4
Early in Modern Painters, Ruskin found the general conception of the design ‘visibly cramped’: ‘The rocks of the Jason may be seen in any quarry of Warwickshire sandstone. Jason himself has not a bit of Greek about him; he is a simple warrior of no period in particular; nay, I think there is something of the nineteenth century about his legs.’5 However, he later revised his view, praising the dragon: ‘No more claws, nor teeth, nor manes, nor stinging tails. ... We need see no more of him. All his horror is in that fearful, slow, griding [sic] upheaval of the single coil. Spark after spark of it, ring after ring, is sliding into the light, the slow glitter steals along him step by step’.6 He also admired the way ‘the trunks of the trees on the right are all cloven into yawning and writhing heads and bodies, and alive with dragon energy all about us’.7 Thus the composition represents ‘a true unison of the grotesque with the realistic power.’8 Eric Shanes has used the composition as an example of a Turnerian ‘visual pun’, and observed that the tree trunk over which Jason clambers is itself like ‘the jaws and head of a crocodile.’9
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.18 no.19, pl.15.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII.149–58.
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautics, IV.123–82; see John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, London, 1969, pp.138–9 and Butlin and Joll 1984, p.18.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.18, with acknowledgement to Jerrold Ziff.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.240.
Ibid., IV 1903, p.260.
Ibid., p.261.
Ibid., V 1904, p.137.
Shanes 1990, pp.[83], [84].
Brooke 1885, pp.20–21.
For example: Wilton 1980, p.[133]; Herrmann 1990, p.41; Shanes 1990, p.151; Richard P. Townsend in Townsend, Andrew Wilton, David Blayney Brown and others, J.M.W. Turner: “That Greatest of Landscape Painters”: Watercolors from London Museums, exhibition catalogue, Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa 1998, p.94.
Wilton 1980, p.[133]; see also Gage 1969, pp.139–40.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xxxii; Forrester 1996, p.12.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.9–19; 1906, pp.12–23; Finberg 1924, pp.5–24.
Forrester 1996, p.52 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2009

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