J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

Joseph Mallord William Turner Jason circa 1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Jason circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVI E
Pencil and watercolour on off-white writing paper, 185 x 264 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘Jason.’, published J.M.W. Turner, ?11 June 1807
Turner based the Liber Studiorum design of Jason on his oil painting of the same title, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802 (519) and again – after adapting the composition for the Liber – at the British Institution in 1808 (394) as Jason, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis [sic]; the painting remained in his collection and formed part of the Turner Bequest (Tate N00471).1 Although the present drawing follows the main lines of the painting, it differs in many details: Jason and the dragon or serpent now occupy a more prominent proportion of the composition, and the obscure gloom of the painting is alleviated by light from above, though Turner did not revise the composition to include the golden fleece which was the object of the dragon’s protection and Jason’s quest in the well-known Greek myth, nor Jason’s future wife Medea, who used magic to send the dragon to sleep – thus enabling Jason to take the fleece without a fight.
Although Turner mentioned Ovid as his source in the title of the painting, he appears to have supplemented his reading in translation of the brief treatment in the Metamorphoses2 with the lengthier account given by Apollonius Rhodius.3 A rough pencil sketch of a snake under a rock in the Rhine, Strassburg and Oxford sketchbook (Tate D04788; Turner Bequest LXXVII 44) may have informed the original composition. There is a detailed study for the figure of Jason in the Calais Pier sketchbook (Tate D04908; Turner Bequest LXXXI 7); tree studies from nature may also have been referred to (for example, those in the Swans sketchbook: Tate D01793, D01794; Turner Bequest XLII 118–119).4
Early in Modern Painters, Ruskin found the general conception of the design ‘visibly cramped’: ‘The rocks of the Jason may be seen in any quarry of Warwickshire sandstone. Jason himself has not a bit of Greek about him; he is a simple warrior of no period in particular; nay, I think there is something of the nineteenth century about his legs.’5 However, he later revised his view, praising the dragon: ‘No more claws, nor teeth, nor manes, nor stinging tails. ... We need see no more of him. All his horror is in that fearful, slow, griding [sic] upheaval of the single coil. Spark after spark of it, ring after ring, is sliding into the light, the slow glitter steals along him step by step’.6 He also admired the way ‘the trunks of the trees on the right are all cloven into yawning and writhing heads and bodies, and alive with dragon energy all about us’.7 Thus the composition represents ‘a true unison of the grotesque with the realistic power.’8 Eric Shanes has used the composition as an example of a Turnerian ‘visual pun’, and observed that the tree trunk over which Jason clambers is itself like ‘the jaws and head of a crocodile.’9
Echoing Ruskin, Stopford Brooke declared there was ‘nothing Greek in the conception of the subject. ... The Teutonic element in Turner – unknown to himself – has moved in his mind. The drawing might be the representation of a subject taken from a Norse Saga, and planted in the midst of English scenery.’ He inferred ‘the true terror of the peasant’s superstition in the dragon jaws that Turner has given to the heads of the withered trees.’10 In line with the dramatic treatment of the subject, the wild landscapes of Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) have often been mentioned as an influence;11 Turner may have known his 1663 etching Jason Charming the Dragon, with its writhing background of woods and rocks (although the next episode of the story is shown, with a heroic Jason dominating the composition, astride a cowering, horse-sized dragon). As Andrew Wilton has noted, Turner’s painting was one of several of his mythological subjects of the period to show ‘the opposition of good and evil’ with heroes ‘contrasted with the corrupt forms of life’ such as gigantic dragons and snakes.12
The composition is recorded, as ‘[:] 5 Jason’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12156; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 23a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)13 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.14 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Jason’, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects (Tate D12170; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 30a).15
The etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Charles Turner and titled ‘Jason.’, which does not bear a publication date, was issued to Liber subscribers in part 1, probably on 11 June 180716 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.2–6;17 see also Tate D08102–D08105, D08110; Turner Bequest CXVI A, B, C, D, I). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00921) and the published engraving (A00922). It is the first of eight published Liber subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08120, D08139, D08144, D08149, D08162, D08166, D08169; Turner Bequest CXVII P, CXVIII H, L, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S, CXVII L, U), of which only three were taken from classical mythology.
Jason’s pose is perhaps echoed in that of Aesacus as he approaches Hesperie in Turner’s later Liber composition (see Tate D08166; Turner Bequest CXVIII L).
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.18 no.19, pl.15.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII.149–58.
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautics, IV.123–82; see John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, London, 1969, pp.138–9 and Butlin and Joll 1984, p.18.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.18, with acknowledgement to Jerrold Ziff.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.240.
Ibid., IV 1903, p.260.
Ibid., p.261.
Ibid., V 1904, p.137.
Shanes 1990, pp.[83], [84].
Brooke 1885, pp.20–21.
For example: Wilton 1980, p.[133]; Herrmann 1990, p.41; Shanes 1990, p.151; Richard P. Townsend in Townsend, Andrew Wilton, David Blayney Brown and others, J.M.W. Turner: “That Greatest of Landscape Painters”: Watercolors from London Museums, exhibition catalogue, Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa 1998, p.94.
Wilton 1980, p.[133]; see also Gage 1969, pp.139–40.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xxxii; Forrester 1996, p.12.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.9–19; 1906, pp.12–23; Finberg 1924, pp.5–24.
Technical Notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘1794 | J Whatman’.1 There are minor losses to some of the dark areas. There is detailed pencil drawing for Jason, the skeleton and other details, but sketchier pencil work elsewhere. The watercolour was built up with washes, then brushstrokes, then scratching-out (the latter only for the monster). Most of the lights are reserved, or else washed out. The heaviest washes have cracked and suffered losses. The single umber pigment results in an overall cool brown tone.2
Forrester 1996, p.52 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscription.
Inscribed in pencil ‘D.08106’ bottom left

Matthew Imms
August 2009

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Jason c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-jason-r1131711, accessed 12 July 2014.