Joseph Mallord William Turner

Tenth Plague of Egypt


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Watercolour on paper
Support: 188 x 257 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVIII H

Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner and William Say, ‘Tenth Plague of Egypt’, published Turner, 1 January 1816
In 1808, Turner included his so-called Fifth Plague of Egypt, based on a painting of 1800, in part 3 of the Liber Studiorum (see under Tate D08120; Vaughan Bequest CXVI S). His large painting of the Tenth Plague of Egypt (Tate N00470)1 had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802, but remained in his studio and ultimately formed part of the Turner Bequest; in the exhibition catalogue, he included an abbreviated version of the relevant verses from the story of the ten plagues of Egypt as related in the Bible:
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.2
The Liber composition follows the painting, though it is proportionately less panoramic, the base of the obelisk or pylon at the upper left is more prominent, and a pyramid now appears among the towers on the right. An apocalyptic flash of lightning has been introduced above the stricken foreground figures; in the subsequent engraving, it is extended to make contact with the distant buildings. The general composition has been compared by Jerrold Ziff to the austere, stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), now in the Städel, Frankfurt (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, no.1849); in Turner’s time it was in the collection of the Earls of Ashburnham, and it is referred to in his Royal Academy ‘Backgrounds’ perspective lecture.3 Andrew Wilton has described the composition, with its ‘bleak grandeur’, as ‘one of the most thoroughgoing of all Turner’s attempts to reconstruct the language of Poussin’.4
Early in Modern Painters, John Ruskin criticised the ‘classical’ Liber subjects as ‘uninteresting’ because of their perceived reliance on his bête noire, Claude Lorrain (see general Liber introduction),5 though in a subsequent volume he saw this as one of the compositions where Turner revealed a ‘great human truth ... their Sorrow. Ruin of all their glorious work, passing away of their thoughts and their honour, mirage of pleasure, Fallacy of Hope; ... weeping of the mother for the children, desolate by her breathless first-born, in the streets of the city’.6 Stopford Brooke noticed a parallel with another Liber design: ‘The woman who sits in the foreground, and whose dead babe lies across her lap, sits in the same attitude as Rizpah [see drawing, Tate D08149; Vaughan Bequest CXVII U], her face concealed with her hand.’7
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.16–17 no.17, pl.13 (colour).
Exodus 12: 29–30.
Jerrold Ziff, ‘Turner and Poussin’, Burlington Magazine, vol.105, July 1963, p.316 and note 18, as cited in Butlin and Joll 1984, p.17 and Forrester 1996, p.123.
Wilton 1980, p.135.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, pp.240–41.
Ibid., VII 1903, p.386.
Brooke 1885, p.[206].
Ibid., pp.207–8; compare the similar, spurious ‘hieroglyphs’ in Turner’s painting.
Ibid., p.209.
Rawlinson 1878, p.125.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163, transcribed in error as first entry on f.31 rather than last on f.30 a.
Ibid., p.158 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.116–25; 1906, pp.137–47; Finberg 1924, pp.225–44.
Forrester 1996, p.123 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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