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

Joseph Mallord William Turner Tenth Plague of Egypt c.1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Tenth Plague of Egypt circa 1806–7
Turner Bequest CXVIII H
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 188 x 257 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
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
Brooke was generally scornful of Turner’s figure drawing and pretensions to scholarship: ‘It is just as a child might conceive, and its only force grows out of this simplicity. ... The sole attempts at realism are the pyramid planted, where it could not be, in the midst of the town, and the four queer hieroglyphic letters [included in the subsequent mezzotint but not in the present drawing] on the vast pillar to the left, one of which is the Greek [capital letter] Theta.’8 However, he admitted Turner rose to the subject in terms of its setting, with ‘the imagination of a great artist in the appalling sky and in the midnight outburst, out of a windless heaven, of the signal lightning which represents the Doom of God.’9 Rawlinson had also felt a disparity between the general treatment, ‘melodramatic and wholly inadequate’ and the atmosphere, rendered more intensely in the print, of ‘horror and terror ... more than the luridness of even a violent thunderstorm’ conveying that ‘there is here something beyond any mere physical cause of terror and awe.’10
The composition is recorded, as ‘9[:] 5 10th Plague’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12158; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)11 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the issue of part 3 in June 1808, as it diverges from the published sequence after part 2;12 as it turned out, the Tenth Plague was the only listed work not to be issued in the first ten parts, with the 1811 print London from Greenwich (see under Tate D08131; Turner Bequest CXVII D) making up the numbers instead. ‘10 Plague’ also appears later in the sketchbook, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects (Tate D12170; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 30a)13 The composition is again noted as ‘10 Plague’, with other ‘Historical’ Liber subjects, inside the back cover of the Tabley Sketchbook, No.1 of about 1808 (Tate D40721; Turner Bequest CIII).14
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by William Say, bears the publication date 1 January 1816 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Tenth Plague of Egypt’ in part 12 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.57–61;15 see also Tate D08158–D08161; Turner Bequest CXVIII D, F, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII E, G). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A01127) and the published engraving (A01128). It is one of eight published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08106, D08120, D08139, D08144, D08149, D08166, D08169; CXVI E, CXVII P, CXVIII L, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S, CXVII L, U).
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.
Technical notes:
The sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘1794 | J Whatman’.1 The lighter areas, particularly the distant buildings and the figures, comprise wet washes with their highlights emphasised by scratching-out. There is only a little light scratching-out in the denser washes, for the lightning. The overall mid-brown colour comprises a single burnt sienna pigment.2 The washes in the sky appear speckled, and there are localised areas of slight damage down the right-hand edge.
Forrester 1996, p.123 (analysis by Peter Bower, acknowledged p.8).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ’61 | H’ centre, and ‘D08162’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVIII – H’ bottom left
A thin residue of glue from earlier mounting is evident all round the edges of the sheet.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Tenth Plague of Egypt c.1806–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, 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-tenth-plague-of-egypt-r1131765, accessed 31 July 2014.