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As Finberg recognised,1 this relatively slight drawing is presumably a direct study for the large mythological painting The Parting of Hero and Leander – from the Greek of Musaeus, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837 (Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London).2 Turner had been interested in the subject for many years, as there is a recognisably similar composition in chalks, inscribed ‘Hero and Leander’, in the Calais Pier sketchbook (Tate D04959; Turner Bequest LXXXI 57), which had been in use at the turn of the century.
The 1816 Yorkshire 1 sketchbook includes a tonal pencil study (Tate D11036; Turner Bequest CXLIV 103a), and there is a sight but apparently related drawing in the River sketchbook of about 1823–4 (Tate D17828; Turner Bequest CCIV 39). Complex architectural drawings in the Mouth of the Thames sketchbook of about 1832 (Tate D27227–D27228; Turner Bequest CCLXXVIII 1a, 2) have been linked to the painting.3 There is also an oil sketch, probably made around 1827–8 (Tate N03381),4 which appears to develop the arrangement of the Calais Pier drawing, introducing prominent if rather incongruous trees at the centre of the coastal scene.
All the above studies vary significantly from the arrangement of the final composition. The present drawing is much closer, even while differing in precise detail (the portico of the temple would be elevated to the very top, for example), and was perhaps made at an early stage in Turner’s work on the canvas, where the details would have evolved out of broad lay-ins of tone and colour. The dark patch at the bottom centre corresponds to the point in the painting where the lovers Hero and Leander are shown by the shore, while rubbing over the vaguely defined forms at the right might be the genesis of the foam-like, glowing array of sea nymphs at that point in the moonlit scene.
In view of speculation that The Parting of Hero and Leander may have been in progress over some years, Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll have concluded after technical analysis that it was instead produced ‘rapidly’, presumably not long before being shown, and ‘not heavily reworked’.5 It was first exhibited in 1837, and the present working drawing is here dated accordingly, although it was made on the back of a letter (Tate D40449) which appears to date from around 1823.
See Finberg 1909, II, p.1149; see also Lindsay 1966, p.248 note 8, Butlin and Joll 1984, p.221, Nicholson 1990, p.197, and Egerton 1998, p.298.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.221–2 no.370, pl.374 (colour).
Ibid., p.178 no.310, as ‘Archway with Trees by the Sea’, 1828, pl.313 (colour).
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.221.
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After Joseph Mallord William Turner The Parting of Hero and Leander, engraved by S. Bradshaw