Joseph Mallord William Turner

Vignette Study of a Female Figure by a Hilly Shore; ?Study for ‘O’Connor’s Child’ for Campbell’s ‘Poetical Works’


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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 181 x 228 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 57

Catalogue entry

This work is one of a group of more than thirty watercolour sketches in the Turner Bequest that appear to be preparatory studies for Campbell’s Poetical Works. They are all painted on cheap, lightweight paper and executed in a rough, loose style. This sketch of a solitary, wind-blown figure looking out to sea strong resemblance to other studies in this group (see Tate D27577; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 40 and Tate D27559; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 42). Although the content and composition of these works cannot be directly linked to any of the finished illustrations for the series, their lonely melancholy mood may reflect Campbell’s poem ‘O’Connor’s Child’, the tragic tale of the daughter of an Irish chieftain whose lover is murdered by her brothers. In particular, the motif of a solitary figure standing on a shore recalls the following lines:
Why lingers she from Erin’s host,
So far on Galway’s shipwreck’d coast;
Why wanders she a huntress wild –
O’Connor’s pale and lovely child?
(Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell, 1837, p.68)
There is also a resemblance to another preliminary study (see Tate D27576; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 59).
The watercolour was part of a parcel of studies described by John Ruskin as ‘A.B. 40. PO. Vignette beginnings, once on a roll. Worthless’.1 For an explanation of his meaning of ‘once on a roll’ see the technical notes above. Finberg records how Ruskin later described his phrasing in a letter to Ralph Nicholson Wornum as ‘horrible’, adding ‘I never meant it to be permanent’.2
Finberg 1909, vol.II, p.894.
Ibid., vol.I, p.xi.
Technical notes:
Peter Bower has noted that this study is made on off-white low-grade machine-made cartridge paper. The maker is unknown and there is no watermark. This paper would have been relatively cheap to buy and could have been purchased from a colourman, cut off from a roll to the desired size. Turner has used the ‘felt’ side of the paper which has slightly more texture than the ‘wire’ side, allowing better adhesion of pigment and graphite to the surface of the sheet. Many of Turner’s vignette studies were made on a similar grade of machine-made paper, and the artist employed the ‘felt’ side on all of them.1
Bower 1999, p.59.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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