View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
This sketch belongs to a large group of preliminary studies which relate to Turner’s vignette illustrations for John Macrone’s 1839 edition of Thomas Moore’s The Epicurean, a Tale: and Alciphron, a Poem. The study shares the same size, palette, and style as nine other works in this group, suggesting that Turner produced them all at around the same time (see Tate D27630; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 113).
The work appears to be an experimental study for The Ring, circa 1838 (untraced),1 one of four finished illustrations which Turner produced for Moore’s fantastical prose tale, The Epicurean. The design was engraved for publication by Edward Goodall.2 Turner’s watercolour highlights the moment when the hero, Alciphron, in the midst of exploring a treacherous Egyptian pyramid, grabs hold of a magical ring that eventually guides him to safety. The hero is mounting a staircase when the steps begin to crumble beneath his feet:
I could hear the plash of the falling fragments, as every step in succession gave way from under my feet. It was a most trying moment, – but even still worse remained. I now found the balustrade, by which I had held during my ascent, and which had hitherto seemed firm, grow tremulous in my hand, – while the step, to which I was about to trust myself, tottered under my foot. Just then, a momentary flash, as if of lightning, broke around me, and I perceived, hanging out of the clouds, and barely within my reach, a huge brazen ring. Instinctively I stretched forth my arm to seize it, and, at the same instant, both balustrade and steps gave way beneath me, and I was left swinging by my hands in the dark void.
(The Epicurean, 1839, p.58)
(The Epicurean, 1839, p.58)
Turner’s vignette depicts the hero hanging by his hands from the giant ring. The composition seen here is broadly similar although instead of a full frontal vertical view the figure of Alciphron is seen in horizontal profile with a dramatically curved back arching across the page. A crumbling balustrade can clearly be seen in the background. These formal arrangements are repeated in another study (see Tate D27631; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 114). Although these changes attest to Turner’s careful development of this composition, some critics consider The Ring to be one of his least successful vignette designs. In his biography of the artist, P.G. Hamerton declared that ‘The Ring may be dismissed at once as a wild fancy of a man swinging in the void, surrounded by diabolical apparitions, a subject authorised by the story, but not well chosen for illustration’.3
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p.456, no.1299.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.635. There is one impression in Tate’s collection (T06623).
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., London 1879, p.280.
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