Turner’s studies of pheasants include two heads made for the Ornithological Collection compiled at Farnley Hall, the Yorkshire home of his friend and patron, Walter Fawkes(for information about this project see the introduction to this grouping). Additionally, there are a number of smaller studies of dead pheasants not apparently directly related to this endeavour.1 The two unfinished sheets in the Turner Bequest depicting a dead pheasant and woodcock, of which this is one, are considerably larger (for the other see Tate D25482; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 359). Both studies appear to be purposeful still-life compositions as opposed to pieces functioning purely as natural history studies: here, the birds are strikingly arranged against a gilt picture frame or mirror. Anne Lyles suggested that these studies could relate to a still-life commission from Walter Fawkes that was never completed, noting Fawkes’s ownership of Dutch and Flemish still life and animal paintings as possible evidence for this.2 The large size of the two sheets and the carefully arranged nature of this composition in particular points towards a function beyond the colour studies themselves.
On this sheet Turner has crafted a masterly essay in handling contrasting textures; the plumage of the birds is captured in energetic and plentiful brushstrokes, while the relative flatness of the gilt frame and accompanying picture or mirror is demonstrated using much larger areas of smooth wash. The pheasant stands out from its setting due to its more detailed treatment but also thanks to a shadow shown to the lower left of it, denoted in greyish gouache. The bright blue of the pheasant’s head is in contrast to both the yellow of the frame and the warm browns of the bodies of both the birds.