The subject of Turner’s mysterious unfinished painting, known today as Death on a Pale Horse, is a problem that has baffled generations of scholars. It has been proposed that it is a response to the death of Turner’s father in 1829 or to the cholera outbreak of 1832 but these suggestions are at best circumstantial. This paper offers a new interpretation of this enigmatic painting, linking it principally to the cause of political Reform.

The Turner Bequest includes a number of paintings whose subjects remain obscure, one of them being an unfinished canvas that was formerly catalogued as A Skeleton Falling Off a Horse in Mid-Air, and is now tentatively titled Death on a Pale Horse(?) c.1825–30 (fig.1). The style and execution of the painting suggest a date for its production from the later 1820s to the early 1830s. The prominence and scale of the central forms of the composition extends a tendency seen in other works of this period when Turner experimented with paintings where the figures are dominating presences.1 Yet this painting puts at centre stage not a living being, but a skeletal body. The painting’s unfinished state and its macabre subject have conspired to make it one of Turner’s most enigmatic and unsettling pictures. Without further contextual or narrative underpinnings that might explain it, the painting has the iconic concentration and visual punch of a memento mori. The archetypal figure of Death looms out of a dark background, its open arms spread wide as though to embrace the spectator. The skeleton’s strangely undefined mount, a mere cipher of a horse, adds to the picture’s otherworldly and nightmarish effect. The overall impression is of an apparition, a phantasm, whose oneiric quality propels it out of everyday experience into another realm.

J.M.W. Turner, Death on a Pale Horse (?) c.1825–30
J.M.W. Turner
Death on a Pale Horse (?) c.1825–30

That said, the central image is relatively unambiguous and clearly depicts a cadaver wearing a crown, bent forwards over the back of a horse and falling towards the viewer. At the bottom of the canvas are barely visible outlines that may perhaps be interpreted as buildings of various sorts on the right, and, on the left, as people grouped around a recumbent figure, but the marks in both areas are very faint and much too indefinite to draw any firm conclusions.2 The skeleton and horse are illuminated by the ruddy clouds at top left but the horse is rearing back from a more ethereal source of light at the right. The cadaver’s outstretched arms show that it retains the supernatural animation of the phantasmagorical skeleton seen in traditional depictions of the Dance of Death,3 or of the figure of Death, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.4 The current title, Death on a Pale Horse, therefore proposes the Book of Revelation as Turner’s inspiration, the skeletal body conflating the rider of the pale horse (Death) with the crowned rider of the white horse.5

This is, at first sight, a reasonable interpretation of the picture, especially given the fact that the horsemen of the Apocalypse had been taken up as a subject for painting by some of Turner’s near contemporaries, including versions by John Hamilton Mortimer (1775), Benjamin West (1783, 1796 and 1817), Philip James de Loutherbourg (1798) and William Blake (1800).6 However, iconographical difficulties undermine this reading. Turner’s skeletal horseman is not posed as the conventional figure of Death, riding triumphantly to lay waste to humanity, but as a slumped figure in defeat. While the present title cannot therefore be maintained, a more satisfactory analysis of Turner’s motives and meaning has proved elusive. The painting is currently considered to be either a deeply personal response to the death of Turner’s father in 1829 or a meditation on the cholera epidemic of 1832. In 2002 James Hamilton speculated that the painting’s subject was the cholera epidemic, but that the inclusion of the coronet on the skeleton’s head was intended to show that the disease affected all classes, adding that ‘it is a small step from that suggestion to the idea that the painting also alludes to the possible consequences of a failure of the Reform Bill’.7 It will be proposed here that this work was painted in or shortly after 1833, that it was indeed prompted by the agitation for political reform in the early 1830s, but that its symbolism is more concrete; specifically, that it refers directly to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s newly published ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ (1832) and that the presentation of the skeletal body is informed by contemporary debates concerning human remains. If this argument is accepted, the painting should be re-catalogued as The Fall of Anarchy and dated c.1833–4.

The alternative interpretations – that the painting is either a personal reflection on the death of Turner’s father in 1829 or a response to the cholera epidemic of 1832 – are both unsatisfactory. It is certainly true that the winter of 1829–30 witnessed three deaths that affected Turner deeply: first his father, then Harriet Wells, a daughter of his friend W.F. Wells, also in late 1829, and finally Sir Thomas Lawrence in January 1830. As Turner wrote to the painter George Jones in February 1830, the day after Lawrence’s funeral, ‘My poor father’s death proved a heavy blow upon me, and has been followed by others of the same dark kind.’8 If the painting were a personal document, perhaps even a form of therapy to cope with the ‘heavy blow’ his father’s death had dealt him, it might be regarded as something that was never intended for public view and therefore never needed to be completed. Yet given what we know of the rest of Turner’s oeuvre, this would be uncharacteristic of his practice. Apart from his erotic drawings, and perhaps the Petworth sketches, there is little unexhibited work in the Turner Bequest that one might characterise as solely concerned with intimate emotional situations or affective responses to events, and nothing that does so symbolically.9 Moreover, with the exception of the early Self-Portrait of c.1799 (Tate N00458), Turner did not use oil painting for (private) self-expression but for subjects that could potentially be exhibited in public and used to engage in public discourse, albeit that some oils remained unfinished or were abandoned. Even a painting like Peace – Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 (Tate N00528), commemorating the death of his colleague Sir David Wilkie, which is arguably the most personal painting Turner ever showed, was exhibited in 1842 at the Royal Academy with Turner’s painting of Napoleon on St Helena, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 (Tate N00529), to make a wider public point about the contributions made to contemporary life by two such different careers. There is also the problem of chronology, for it will be shown below that Turner adopted a design published in John Flaxman’s Anatomical Studies (1833) for the skeleton, which indicates that this paintingwas produced in or after that year rather than in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death in 1829. For all these reasons, its field of reference must lie beyond his personal grief.

The cholera outbreak of 1832 is, prima facie, a more likely stimulus for Turner’s mysterious painting. By the end of the epidemic some 52,000 deaths from cholera had been reported in Britain, 6,500 of them in London, and it was a major national concern.10 Yet it would surely have been unwise for Turner to have exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy whose subject was Death on a Pale Horse, even a year or so after the intense anxieties of 1832 had subsided, and risking offending public sensibility with such a morbid allusion to what had occurred. Furthermore, as already argued, the idea that the painting refers to the ravages of the epidemic cannot be sustained, given that the traditional personification of Death is not apparent here. Rather than the domineering skeletal rider of iconographic convention, we are shown instead a cadaver sprawled insecurely over the back of a rearing horse. Irrespective of its ghastly appearance, what Turner seems to depict is not Death triumphant but a more vulnerable figure.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Carcase of an Ox c.1640–45
Rembrandt van Rijn
The Carcase of an Ox c.1640–5
Glasgow Museums

For all its strangeness, the painting invokes artistic traditions. The early 1830s mark a moment when Turner was renewing his interest in Rembrandt, painting a number of pictures that emulate his example.11 The dramatic chiaroscuro of this picture is of a piece with his admiration for the Dutch artist’s use of light and colour. Moreover, in taking something that was normally the preserve of the dissection theatre and making of it an elevated subject Turner may well have found support in Rembrandt’s achievement. In September 1817, on his first trip to the Netherlands, he had visited the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild Chambers where The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp 1632 (Mauritshuis, The Hague) and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Jan Deijman 1656 (Amsterdam Museum) were displayed.12 However, the dynamic appearance of the skeleton in this picture far exceeds Rembrandt’s tranquil representation of the corpse Dr Tulp is investigating and is a more chaotic and unsettling view of a cadaver than even the eviscerated body presided over by Dr Deijman. With Rembrandt, the body has been subjected to the demands of medical research and is opened for rational inspection. Turner’s cadaver is, in contrast, a display of bone and flesh as brute matter and in that respect has more of an affinity with the four-square presentation of the carcass in Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox. What today is the better-known painting of this subject, dating from 1655, (held in the collection of the Musée du Louvre, Paris) was in a private collection in Holland and Turner does not record seeing it in 1817, but it would certainly have been possible for him to examine another version of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox in London: The Carcase of an Ox c.1640–45 (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow; fig.2).

This variant was with the art dealer Samuel Woodburn and was highly praised: ‘It may truly be said of this picture, that however ignoble the subject may be, the masterhand of Rembrandt has here subdued objections, and given qualities which must ever recommend it as a work of art.’13 Woodburn was a renowned dealer and was well known to Turner; he had a large stock of Dutch pictures and probably acquired this painting in the early 1830s.14

Art historian John Gage has plausibly suggested that Turner drew his inspiration for the horse from one of the mounts on the Parthenon frieze.15 He had known Lord Elgin’s collection since its display in temporary premises on Park Lane, visiting it by special arrangement in August 1806, before it was open to the general public.16 He was also, of course, able to view the Parthenon reliefs regularly from 1817 after they were installed in the British Museum. Gage suggests, however, that Turner most probably had recourse to Thomas Stothard’s engravings, made after drawings by William Pars, which were published in 1816 for Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens (fig.3).17

After William Pars, The South Frieze of the Parthenon, engraved by Thomas Stothard, published 1816
After William Pars
The South Frieze of the Parthenon, engraved by Thomas Stothard, published 1816
British Museum

Given Turner’s skill and experience in painting horses, his decision to draw inspiration from the sculptures of the Parthenon should not be understood merely as a formal short-cut. Employing such an iconic model is better interpreted as a calculated reference to a well-known collection of sculptures, whose qualities had been keenly debated by artists and connoisseurs since their arrival in England. Alluding to the frieze sets up a heightened contrast: the horse’s rightful rider, one of the young men of the Panathenaic procession, has been usurped by a skeleton; life has been supplanted by death; the immaculate body by a mutilated cadaver.

‘Like death in the Apocalypse’

The specific iconography of the picture is unusual. As already noted, it does not make use of traditional Dance of Death or apocalyptic imagery. For that reason it may seem to be Turner’s idiosyncratic invention and therefore beyond identification or interpretation. However, there was one significant text in circulation that described just such a skeletal rider: Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. Originally drafted in 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre, it was first published in 1832, with a preface by poet and critic Leigh Hunt, and was very widely reviewed. To represent the forces of political repression, Shelley invented the figure of Anarchy, described initially as follows:

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw –

This triumphant figure, later described by Shelley as ‘Anarchy the Skeleton’,19 is eventually defeated. As ‘a rushing light of clouds and splendour’ emerges, we learn that the dread figure is no more:

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.20

Here, then, Shelley describes a skeletal figure on a white horse, deliberately modelled on the familiar apocalyptic rider from the Bible.21 However, unlike the figure of Death in the Book of Revelation, whose victory is absolute, Shelley’s tyrannical Anarchy is overthrown, fallen to the ground while his horse abandons him. Although the right hand of Turner’s skeleton is so obscured that it is futile to look for a sceptre, there are some indications of an object in its grasp which could have been worked up to become one and otherwise there is a reasonable concordance between the figure presented in Shelley’s evocative stanzas and Turner’s dream-like image. It seems reasonable therefore to assert that the crowned, skeletal figure tumbling from his white horse may be understood as Shelley’s figure of Anarchy at the moment of his defeat. Such a reading of the picture is undoubtedly contentious on two counts, one circumstantial and one ideological. It proposes that Turner, whose interest in Shelley has traditionally been thought to be relatively slight, could have known of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ shortly after it was published and that his political sentiments were close enough to Shelley’s to want to make such an explicit reference to the poem.

Turning to the first of these considerations, Turner’s initial awareness of Shelley’s work is difficult to date. His personal library contained nothing by Shelley, apart from what appeared in an anthology of contemporary British poetry, published in 1838.22 Nevertheless, John Gage has surmised that in at least three of Turner’s paintings of the 1840s, Shelley’s influence may be detected: The Sun of Venice going to Sea exhibited 1843 (Tate N00535), whose epigraph reworks part of ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’ (1819); Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 (Tate N00532), whose conception of prismatic bubbles owes a debt to ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (1820); and Queen Mab’s Cave exhibited 1846 (Tate N00548), which draws explicitly on Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ (1813).23 Neither ‘Prometheus Unbound’ nor ‘Queen Mab’ were in the anthology he owned, so Turner presumably turned to Shelley’s Poetical Works, edited by Mary Shelley, which was published in 1839, although it is also conceivable that he knew them from their original editions. As for ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, the critical reviews in 1832 provided enough information to give the gist of the poem, whether or not Turner acquired his own copy. The Monthly Review, for example, paraphrased ‘the skeleton Anarchy on his white horse, splashed with blood, with pale lips, and looking like Death in the Apocalypse’ before quoting extracts from the poem, including the verse in which the death of Anarchy is described.24 Even if known to Turner only in excerpted passages from the reviews, the poem’s visual imagery may have proved appealing, perhaps especially in the lines describing the overthrowing of Anarchy by what is described as a light-filled mist that takes on bodily form and awakens thoughts of resistance. Furthermore, given Turner’s longstanding meditations in his own verses, Fallacies of Hope, which he had appended to some of his paintings from 1812 onwards, he would presumably have found attractive Shelley’s protagonist, the ‘maniac maid’ Hope, who ‘looked more like Despair’ and whose seemingly certain destruction by Murder, Fraud and Anarchy is averted by that same vaporous emanation.25 If the faint marks at the bottom of the canvas do indeed represent the beginnings of an outline of a recumbent figure they may have been the basis for a representation of Hope, described by Shelley as prostrate in front of Anarchy before her deliverance. Similarly, the patch of white pigment at the right of Turner’s composition, from which the horse is recoiling, may be the place where the misty form that overwhelms Anarchy was to be introduced.

With respect to the political message of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, it is important to remember that its appearance in 1832 occasioned a very different reception to what it would have received in 1819 when a repressive state was riven with dissension. Hunt had withheld the poem in 1819, but judged the climate of 1832, shortly after the Great Reform Act had become law, to be appropriate for its publication. The reviews largely concurred that the poem should no longer be considered inflammatory. For some, as for example the critic of the Athenaeum, Shelley was a great genius whose reputation had been traduced and ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was a very welcome addition to his oeuvre.26 Other critics felt that Shelley’s stance had lost much of its contentiousness in the circumstances of the 1830s. The Times, for example, declared that ‘we gladly take occasion from a new work to lay before the public which must please all parties; – nay, even the most “Conservative” must allow that the Radical poet has exhibited not merely the enthusiasm of genuine poetry, but the sound principles of constitutional freedom’.27 Nevertheless, Shelley’s radical views were still a source of concern for some,28 and Leigh Hunt’s preface was at pains to play down their more revolutionary aspects; he emphasised Shelley’s respect for Reform and the people’s fortitude in working towards it without violence. It was in this spirit that the Monthly Review summed up the poem as ‘powerfully calculated to rouse the latent spirit of the people to vindicate their rights’.29 Other critics, however, were more sceptical of the poem’s application to the current situation. The Literary Examiner questioned whether Shelley’s call for action had any relevance to practical politics.30 Likewise, the Spectator considered Shelley’s advocacy of passive resistance in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to be far from insurrectionary and declared that the poem’s long-delayed publication had robbed it of whatever ideological force it once had: ‘The poem was a sort of admonitory prophecy, full of power, hope, and wisdom: now it is published after the event, when it becomes only a curious work of art – a mere poem, of more or less vigour and talent’.31

As these comments indicate, the exposure of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the reviews ensured that its major themes and especially its advocacy of political reform were made abundantly clear to contemporary readers. Reform was a cause to which Turner, too, was drawn, fostered by his long-standing friendship with one of his patrons, the Yorkshire landowner and Whig MP Walter Fawkes. Fawkes was a political ally of Sir Francis Burdett, whose agitation for Reform had also attracted Shelley.32 Fawkes associated with the key reformers of the day and was in the Chair when the first Hampden Club for parliamentary reform was inaugurated in April 1812.33 He was also a committee member of the Union for Parliamentary Reform, founded in June that year.34 In a speech delivered in May 1812, celebrating the anniversary of Burdett’s election, Fawkes decisively sided with the radical wing of the reformers.35 His later pamphlet The Englishman’s Manual; or, a dialogue between a Tory and a Reformer (1817) sets out with clarity and vigour the cause to which he adhered.36 As well as regularly petitioning for Reform, Fawkes spoke out against the Peterloo Massacre in terms that were so inflammatory that Lord Castlereagh quoted them in Parliament: ‘Mr Fawkes was represented to have expressed himself to this effect—“that the louder they complained, the sharper did their enemies make their swords, and that he would rather perish in the temple of liberty than see it converted into a barrack”.’37

Turner’s sympathy with Fawkes’s political beliefs explains the addition of an inscription (fig.4) to a handful of presentation proofs of the engraving The Birthplace of John Wycliffe (The Morning Star of Liberty), near Rokeby, Yorkshire 1823.38 This text outlines the dissemination of the Bible in English from theologian John Wycliffe’s time to the present and ends with a reference to ‘the Trial of Humphrey Boyle before Mr Common Serjt. Denman[.] Women and Boys were ordered to quit the court while the defendant read extracts from the Bible.’ Boyle was a working-class shopman, who was working for the radical publisher Richard Carlile – who was in prison for blasphemy and seditious libel at the time – when he was arrested in December 1821 at Carlile’s shop in Fleet Street, The Temple of Reason. As the author of a radical pamphlet, Boyle, too, was charged with blasphemy and seditious libel, detained until his trial the following May and then sentenced to a further eighteen months’ imprisonment and required to find sureties for five years thereafter. Boyle’s pamphlet attacked religion as idolatry, criticised the Constitution and supported Reform. As part of his defence he read explicit passages from the Bible to demonstrate its inclusion of obscene material and the court was cleared when he did so.39 The text added to Turner’s Wycliffe plate was presumably for circulation among three or four of Fawkes’s closest friends and allies; nevertheless, Turner’s willingness to include this reference to Boyle’s trial on his design shows that he was prepared to support radical causes via the most outspoken sources of dissension in the 1820s.

After J.M.W. Turner, The Birthplace of John Wycliffe (The Morning Star of Liberty), near Rokeby, Yorkshire, engraved by John Pye, 1823
After J.M.W. Turner
The Birthplace of John Wycliffe (The Morning Star of Liberty), near Rokeby, Yorkshire, engraved by John Pye, 1823
British Museum, London

Fawkes’s death in 1825 robbed Turner of one of his deepest friendships, but his political inspiration lived on.40 Turner’s consistent endorsement of Reform is manifested especially in works produced in the early 1830s as the Reform Bill was debated, including the watercolours The Northampton Election, 6 December 1830 c.1830–1 (fig.5) and Nottingham c.1831 (Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, Nottingham), and the oil painting The Prince of Orange, William III, Embarked from Holland, and Landed at Torbay, November 4th, 1688, after a Stormy Passage exhibited 1832 (fig.6).

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Northampton Election, 6 December 1830' circa 1830-1
J.M.W. Turner
The Northampton Election, 6 December 1830, c.1830–1
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Prince of Orange, William III, Embarked from Holland, and Landed at Torbay, November 4th, 1688, after a Stormy Passage' exhibited 1832
J.M.W. Turner
The Prince of Orange, William III, Embarked from Holland, and Landed at Torbay, November 4th, 1688, after a Stormy Passage exhibited 1832

The two oils exhibited in 1835 and titled The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 have also been interpreted as reflections on the parallel between the physical destruction of the medieval seat of government and the end of the old political order occasioned by the Reform Act of 1832.41 Reading ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the wake of the Reform Act, and accepting Leigh Hunt’s interpretation of its message, Shelley’s poem could be understood as prophesying what had come to pass only thirteen years after the violent repression of the Peterloo Massacre. In like manner, a painting depicting The Fall of Anarchy might be understood as alluding to the victory of Reform over reactionary forces. Certainly, the idea of a skeletal body representing the old order was not confined to Shelley’s poem. The British Museum collection contains a design for a transparency exhibited at 14 Catherine Street, Strand, to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill, with a skeleton presiding over the enemies of Reform (fig.7).

Design of a transparency exhibited at 14 Catherine Street, Strand, on the occasion of the general illumination to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill, 1832
Design of a transparency exhibited at 14 Catherine Street, Strand, on the occasion of the general illumination to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill, 1832
British Museum, London

The body in question

The depiction of the skeleton in Turner’s picture is of a different order entirely to the few other instances of such remains in his oeuvre. In those examples the skeletons are represented somewhat cursorily and on a small scale.42 Here, in contrast, the large, centrally positioned skeleton dominates the composition. But beyond the visual emphasis Turner affords it, the skeleton’s presentation is also unusual when compared to conventional approaches to the representation of Death. The anatomy of the body is revealed as though it were partly dissected, or even butchered. It will be argued here that this approach is deliberate, and that a precise description of the cadaver may further illuminate the context and meaning of the painting. The analysis proposes that Turner presents us with a coherent image of a mutilated corpse and that a richer explanation for the painting may be found with reference to the debates occasioned by the Anatomy Act of 1832.

Because the painting is unfinished, Turner’s incomplete forms are relatively indistinct. However, it is possible to analyse the principal features anatomically. The arms, skull, backbone and ribs of the cadaver are visible, as well as some of the muscle tissue attached to them. The skull is positioned face down, with the top of the head (vertex) highlighted and the face, foreshortened and in deep shadow, dimly visible below what seems to be a simple crown or coronet. The head is positioned tilted slightly to its right, looking towards the bottom left of the painting. The body’s left arm (on our right) is rotated to face forwards, with its thumb presented radically foreshortened. The right arm (on our left) is bent at the elbow and the glenohumeral joint, where the arm joins the shoulder, appears to be disarticulated, for the head of the humerus is visible. The right scapula (on our left) is absent and some of the large muscles overlying the rib cage are also missing. Looking down the trunk, the bone arc visible on the left is possibly the right hip bone’s iliac crest, with what may be intended as the greater trochanter of the right femur visible just beyond it. Careful analysis reveals that the cadaver is coherent in its overall presentation, with its constituent parts depicted correctly in proportion to one another.43 What is abundantly clear, however, is that its individual anatomical features are presented without the clarity of an anatomical atlas. The osteology in Turner’s picture is obscure (could the bone arc actually represent the right scapula, displaced further down the trunk?) and the myology is even more so, with the body’s soft tissue rendered not so much as the interpretable muscular structure of an écorché figure but rather as undifferentiated flesh. Overall, Turner’s presentation is of a body that has been mangled.

The fact that this depiction is anatomically plausible strongly suggests that Turner was working from a visual source that allowed him to produce a credible representation. The absence of any studies of human skeletons in Turner’s sketchbooks is significant, for it indicates that he had no store of student drawings or later studies to assist him in making this image. The only illustrated work on anatomy in his personal library was John Tinney’s Compendious Treatise of Anatomy, which he had used as a student.44 None of Tinney’s illustrations, however, depart from the standard presentations of osteology used in medical atlases, whereas Turner’s skeleton is presented obliquely and foreshortened. What Turner turned to instead is almost certainly John Flaxman’s Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the Use of Artists (1833). One of its plates shows, at top right, the spine and ribs of a skeleton, presented in foreshortening in an analogous position to the body in Turner’s painting (fig.8).45

After John Flaxman Plate 3 [Three views of bones of the upper torso] from Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the Use of Artists, engraved by Henry Landseer, published 1833
After John Flaxman
Plate 3 [Three views of bones of the upper torso] from Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the Use of Artists, engraved by Henry Landseer, published 1833
Royal Academy, London

In support of this hypothesis it is notable that in addition to the cadaver’s general orientation in Turner’s picture, the highlights making visible the tips of the ribs below the body’s right arm duplicate their appearance in the plate. Likewise, the sketchy outline of the left scapula is close in design to the engraving. As a posthumous work, Anatomical Studies would have been of interest to Flaxman’s colleagues in the Royal Academy. It may have been of additional significance to Turner insofar as it was dedicated to his friend, Francis Chantrey, who had acquired Flaxman’s original anatomical drawings and bound them into his copy.46 The book’s date of publication provides a terminus post quem for Turner’s painting, making its production no earlier than 1833.47

The presentation of the body calls for more comment. In the plate from Anatomical Studies only bones are depicted, whereas Turner shows flesh, too, as though the body had been roughly flayed, some parts removed or displaced and its muscles exposed haphazardly. Whatever its title, had the picture been exhibited in public this brutal emphasis on the materiality of the cadaver would have been confrontational. Turner’s rendition of these remains presents neither the symbolic skeleton of conventional Apocalypse iconography, nor the intelligible cadaver of the anatomist, but disarticulated bone and mutilated tissue. This might be considered simply as a tactic to show corruptible flesh at its most abject, but it is also arguable that the ruined body had a particular resonance in the circumstances of the early 1830s when the trade in bodies for dissection was prominently discussed. Since 1752 the legal supply of corpses for training in anatomy had been restricted to the cadavers of murderers, whose dissection was seen as a punitive measure and a useful deterrent.48 The idea of denying the murderer burial, treating the body as good only for dissection, was contentious for many anatomists who disliked being made complicit in the workings of the penal system. The paucity of bodies made available by this means had also become a problem. With demand from anatomists in excess of the legal supply of corpses, grave-robbing or body-snatching by so-called resurrectionists made good the deficit, a practice conducted with the unofficial but frankly acknowledged compliance of the medical establishment.49

Activated by both of these concerns, a number of voices in the early nineteenth century made the case for reform and the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy was ordered by the House of Commons to investigate the situation and make recommendations for a more reliable and better regulated system for supplying corpses for dissection. Chaired by Henry Warburton, a Benthamite MP, the Committee’s Report was submitted on 22 July 1828 and recommended that, if unclaimed, the bodies of the inmates of workhouses, hospitals and charitable institutions should become the source of supply.50 Some three months after the Committee’s work was published the murders committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh were revealed. The trial in December 1828 was a sensation, and although neither man was a resurrectionist, the evidence submitted in court revealed the ease with which their victims’ bodies had been sold to the Edinburgh anatomist Dr Robert Knox.51 In the wake of public alarm about grave-robbing and ‘Burking’, Warburton’s first Anatomy Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1829: A Bill for preventing the Unlawful Disinterment of Human Bodies and for Regulating Schools of Anatomy. The Bill passed the scrutiny of the Commons but failed in the Lords. Then, in November 1831, the crimes of the London resurrectionists and Burkers John Bishop and Thomas Williams came to light. Again, their trial and execution were the talk of the nation and laid bare the trade in corpses that sustained the anatomy schools.52 Warburton introduced his second attempt to regulate the provision of cadavers for dissection on 15 December 1831, ten days after Bishop and Williams were executed. Entitled A Bill for Regulating Schools of Anatomy, it passed successfully through Parliament and became law on 1 August 1832.

As its critics pointed out, Warburton’s proposed legislation was discriminatory, for whereas the resurrectionists targeted any grave they could plunder, the proposed legal and regulated system would ensure that, apart from voluntary donations, the unclaimed bodies of paupers would supply anatomists with the cadavers they required. Moreover, what had previously been an extension of the penal code – precisely because of the awfulness of its denial of an intact burial – would now be applied not to murderers but to the bodies of the poor. There were a number of public protests by working people, including attacks on anatomy schools and, memorably, the supporters of Michael Sadler in the 1832 Leeds election carried a banner depicting a skeleton, with the ironic legend ‘Anatomy Bill to better the condition of the helpless poor’.53 William Cobbett was one of those protesting vociferously against what he referred to as ‘The Dead Body Bill’, petitioning against Warburton’s original Bill of 1829 as well as its successor of 1832. In his 1832 petition to the House of Lords, Cobbett warned against legislation that would promote the sale and trafficking of the bodies of the poor ‘as in the carcasses of beasts that perish’, citing passages from the Bible in support of the burial rite and appealing to the clergy to oppose this sacrilegious assault.54 In his Two-Penny Trash he alerted his readers to the dangers they faced: ‘the House of Lords will now soon decide, whether you and your parents and wives and children, be, after death to sleep quietly in your graves, or whether you be to be sold and cut up, like dogs and horses.’55

The idea of the violated body in the hands of the anatomist was voiced by many, not only in connection with the Anatomy Act but also once the extent of body-snatching became widely known in the 1820s. Dissection and the disposal of human remains were variously described as: ‘cut in pieces, mangled and destroyed’, ‘mutilated and dismembered’, ‘bodies cast away as mere filth, or given as food to animals’, and ‘that last species of degradation’.56 The public revulsion against dissection helps explain the widespread and often vocal interest in Warburton’s two Bills, as well as the more general dread of grave-robbing and Burking to supply anatomists in the later 1820s and early 1830s. Working class anxiety about dissection was deepened after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, with a number of Radical voices arguing that the legislation would, in effect, see the new workhouses become purveyors of corpses for dissection.57 In his 1834 satire Surplus Population and Poor-law Bill, Cobbett has one of his characters liken dissection to being ‘cut up to pieces like the carcass of a dead horse at the dog kennel’.58

The proposition that Turner was alive to the debates surrounding dissection cannot be proved, but their salience in the press would have been hard to ignore and his medical acquaintances could have given him detailed insights beyond what the newspapers and journals reported.59 His professional associate and personal physician, Sir Anthony Carlisle, had briefed the government on the issue and might well have informed Turner about it.60 Turner’s friendship with the Somerville family is likely to have been especially productive. He had become acquainted with the scientist and mathematician Mary Somerville in the 1820s and associated with her and her second husband Dr William Somerville until they emigrated to Italy in 1838.61 William Somerville’s illegitimate son, James Craig Somerville, was part of the Somerville family circle. He followed his father’s profession and was one of those invited to contribute expert testimony to the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy. In January 1832, James Somerville published a pamphlet lobbying for Warburton’s second Anatomy Bill.62 After the passing of the Anatomy Act he was appointed Inspector of Anatomy for England and Wales, with responsibility for seeing the new arrangements put in place and properly discharged. With this appointment Somerville became, in effect, the public guardian of professional standards in the supply of bodies for dissection.63 It is hard to imagine that the Somervilles did not discuss with their acquaintances, Turner among them, the Anatomy Act and their son’s involvement in it.

Turner’s presentation of the skeletal body in this picture is poised between the intact cadaver and the anatomised skeleton, as though witnessing a dissection after the corpse had been flayed and some of the superficial muscles of the back had been removed. But as has been noted above, this is not a body whose anatomical features have been progressively revealed for the purposes of instruction, and Turner’s presentation makes a stark contrast with, for example, the anatomical studies made by Haydon and his pupils in the early nineteenth century.64 The body here looks to be mangled; butchered precisely in the way that opponents of the Anatomy Act had so forcefully protested against. In these debates it was regularly pointed out that those who championed the new legislation on the grounds of educational necessity had no intention of allowing their own bodies, or the bodies of their loved ones, to be made available for that purpose. Moreover, once the workhouses supplied sufficient corpses for dissection, those in privileged positions would have no further reason to fear the resurrectionists; the new arrangements for supplying anatomists would affect only the destitute. If Turner is indeed depicting Anarchy here, the cadaver that he has represented is one that has had meted out to it what the Anatomy Act reserved for the poor. The mangled body of this fallen ruler constitutes an especially apt development of Shelley’s deliberate inversion of values in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. It is as though Turner has adopted the anti-hierarchical principles of the reformers to extend the workings of the Anatomy Act to the highest ranks of society.

A project abandoned

Could Turner, normally so circumspect in his allusions, have ventured on a picture with a direct connection to ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ and the legislation of the early 1830s? Did he entertain the possibility of showing it in the Royal Academy exhibition? These are necessarily speculative questions, for the picture’s unfinished state indicates that Turner abandoned the painting with only the horse and its tumbling rider anywhere close to resolution, but whether his decision to cease work on it was the result of creative dissatisfaction or political caution is an intriguing question. As is well known, Turner began an ambitious painting of the 1830s, now known as A Disaster at Sea c.1835 (Tate N00558; fig.9), that probably records the fate of the convict ship Amphitrite, which was wrecked off Boulogne in 1833 and all its human cargo drowned because of the ship’s master’s obduracy.65 That picture, too, was abandoned. Turner’s decision to stop work on it is unexplained but the debacle of the loss of the Amphitrite might have been considered too contentious a subject to be placed in the public arena.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'A Disaster at Sea' ?circa 1835
J.M.W. Turner
A Disaster at Sea c.1835

Political caution in respect of a picture celebrating Reform may seem unwarranted, especially after the successful passage of the Great Reform Bill and the generally supportive reception of Shelley’s poem in the reviews. But this is to forget the volatility of national politics and the strength of conservative opinion in the 1830s. The Whig government that had passed the Reform Bill in 1832 was dismissed by William IV in November 1834 and a Conservative government installed in its place, initially under the Duke of Wellington until Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister in December. The Conservative party made gains in the 1835 general election, held between 6 January and 6 February, and ran a minority administration until April 1835, when Lord Melbourne’s Whigs returned to power. Many of those who had celebrated the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 were thus made to realise that the cause of progressive politics was not, after all, inevitable. As for ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ itself, not every critic was disposed to excuse Shelley’s ardour now that the cause of Reform was victorious. For the British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review, to take one example, Shelley’s was a dangerous mind:

No conscientious man … no sincere lover of his country, will go about recklessly disseminating opinions, which, taking root in the very highways of society, may at a future day spring up armed men, and fill the country with war and bloodshed. Mr. Shelley endeavoured to do this, and gloried in so doing ­­– if his apologists deny the accusation – we refer them to his works, and upon them rest our argument.66

If public exhibition of a picture indebted to Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was unwise in the early 1830s, might Turner have intended it as a posthumous tribute to Walter Fawkes, perhaps envisaging his son, Francis Hawkesworth Fawkes, as a potential purchaser of the painting? Hawkesworth Fawkes remained friendly with Turner for the rest of his life, arranged exhibitions of his work at Leeds in 1826 and 1839 and bought Rembrandt’s Daughter 1827 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts) in the year that it was painted. Turner’s Rembrandtesque approach to The Fall of Anarchy might therefore have proved similarly appealing. Fawkes was also politically active. He was wholeheartedly committed to his father’s cause and celebrated the ‘glorious triumph of reform principle’ with an anniversary dinner at Otley in 1833.67 In May 1835 Fawkes was made Chairman of the West Riding Reform and Registration Society, established to coordinate the activities of the Reform societies of the area as they added newly enfranchised voters to the electoral register.68 Earlier that year, campaigning in the general election, his rhetoric was strikingly radical; he spoke of ‘the dictatorship of the Duke of Wellington’ and approximated the famous refrain ‘Ye are many – they are few’, which closes ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, when reminding his listeners of ‘the old Tory principle of government – “the advantage of the few at the sacrifice of the interests of the many” – the leaning to the opinion of the few in preference to and in defiance of the opinion of the many’.69 However, whether or not Turner hoped Fawkes would be interested in this painting, Rembrandt’s Daughter remained the only picture by Turner that he ever bought.

It is unlikely that we will ever discover why Turner stopped work on this composition, and we can only guess how it would have been supplemented with other details, additional figures or atmospheric effects as he brought it to a full resolution. We also have no way of knowing how Turner would have titled it had it been completed. Although the account offered here has laid its heaviest emphasis on supplying a historical framework for this picture and situating it in a credible explanatory context, there is no compelling reason to suppose that Turner would have chosen a title that declared an allegiance to Shelley’s poem or these wider contexts and circumstances directly. As is well known, although some of his pictures make their liberal politics and humanitarian interests readily apparent, in other works the complexity of his imagery and his preference for disguised allusion ensure that much of their political or social reference has to be worked for if it is to be discerned. If, therefore, the arguments advanced here are accepted and the picture is re-catalogued as The Fall of Anarchy then that title needs to be understood merely as a convenience for modern scholarship and not an indication of Turner’s ultimate intentions for the title of the painting.

Although an analysis of the sort this paper has proposed is inevitably tentative, it draws attention to one of the most important aspects of Turner’s practice: his persistent commitment to modern circumstances and concerns. His oeuvre is best understood as a brilliant demonstration of the power of painting to address the world in all its complexity, natural and social, historical and contemporary. The Fall of Anarchy is no exception to that general rule.


  • 1. These include Jessica exhibited 1830 (Tate T03887), Lord Percy, under Attainder exhibited 1831 (Tate N00515) and the unexhibited and unfinished canvases: Reclining Venus, painted at Rome in 1828 (Tate N05498), Two Women with a Letter c.1830 (Tate N05501) and A Lady in a Van Dyck Costume c.1830–5 (Tate N05511).
  • 2. The painting’s conservation record shows that it has been cleaned but has not been x-rayed.
  • 3. The Dance of Death had recently been updated in William Combe’s The English Dance of Death from the Designs of Thomas Rowlandson with Metrical Illustrations, by the Author of ‘Doctor Syntax’, London 1815. A scholarly treatment of the theme, contemporary with Turner’s painting, is Francis Douce’s The Dance of Death, London 1833, focusing on Hans Holbein’s woodcuts.
  • 4. This fact alone rules out any interpretation that would suggest Turner intended to depict the cadaver of an historical figure such as, for example, the dead body of Richard III, slung naked over the back of a horse after his defeat at Bosworth, which was well known to educated readers of the time: ‘The dead body of Richard … was stripped and thrown naked, and besmeared with blood and dirt, on the back of a horse, in the most contumelious manner,’ Sharon Turner, History of England During the Middle Ages, London 1825, vol.4, p.51.
  • 5. ‘And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer … And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth,’ Book of Revelation 6:2, 8.
  • 6. John Hamilton Mortimer, Death on a Pale Horse, pen and ink drawing exhibited Society of Arts, 1775 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT); etched by Joseph Haynes and published 1 January, 1784. Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, pen, ink and wash drawing, 1783, exhibited Royal Academy 1784, retouched 1803 (Royal Academy, London); Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, oil on canvas, 1796, exhibited Royal Academy 1796, Paris Salon 1802 (Detroit Institute of Arts); Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, oil on canvas, 1817, exhibited 125, Pall Mall, 1817 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). Philip James de Loutherbourg, The Vision of the White Horse, oil on canvas, 1798 (Tate T01138). William Blake, Death on a Pale Horse, pen, ink, wash and watercolour, c. 1800 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
  • 7. James Hamilton, Turner’s Britain, London and New York 2003, p.168.
  • 8. John Gage (ed.), Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 1980, p.137.
  • 9. For Turner’s erotica see Ian Warrell, Turner’s Secret Sketches, London 2012; the Petworth sketches are fully discussed in Christopher Rowell, Ian Warrell and David Blayney Brown, Turner at Petworth, London 2002.
  • 10. See R.J. Morris, Cholera 1832: The Social Response to an Epidemic, London 1976.
  • 11. Rembrandt’s Daughter exhibited 1827 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts); Pilate Washing his Hands exhibited 1830 (Tate N00510); Jessica exhibited 1830 (Tate T03887); Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace exhibited 1832 (Tate N00517); Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple unfinished c.1832 (Tate N05474).
  • 12. Itinerary Rhine Tour Sketchbook, Turner Bequest CLIX, pp.10 and 100.
  • 13. John Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, London 1836, vol.7, p.259: ‘Rembrandt van Rhyn, 619. The Slaughterhouse … Now in the collection of Messrs. Woodburn.’
  • 14. It is not known when Woodburn bought this painting. Its previous listing in its provenance shows it to have been auctioned in Amsterdam in June 1801, when it was bought by the dealer C.S. Roos. The painting is not recorded in Johann David Passavant’s account of Woodburn’s collection, which he visited in 1831. See M.[J.D.] Passavant, Tour of a German Artist in England, trans. by Elizabeth Eastlake, London 1836, vol.1, pp.244–54. Passavant’s failure to note it suggests it was purchased between 1831 and 1836, when Smith records it (see note 12).
  • 15. John Gage, Jerrold Ziff, Nicholas Alfrey and others, J.M.W. Turner, à l’occasion du cinquantième anniversaire du British Council, exhibition catalogue, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris 1983, pp.111–12.
  • 16. Turner’s letter of thanks to Lord Elgin is dated 7 August 1806. See Gage 1980, p.31. Turner may have been offered this privilege because Elgin had approached him in 1799 to be his official artist in Athens.
  • 17. James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, Antiquities of Athens, London 1816, vol.4, chapter iv, plates vii, viii, xi. The engravings of the Parthenon sculptures were also published separately as The Elgin marbles from the temple of Minerva at Athens: on 61 plates, selected from ‘Stuart’s and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens’. To which are added, the report from the select committee to the House of commons, respecting the earl of Elgin’s collection of sculptured marbles, London 1816.
  • 18. Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, London 1832, verses viii and ix.
  • 19. Ibid., verse xix.
  • 20. Ibid., verses xxxiii and xxxiv.
  • 21. It has been proposed that Shelley could have seen either West’s painting or Mortimer’s engraving of Death on a Pale Horse, referred to above (see note 5), and drew on this imagery when visualising the appearance of Anarchy. See Morton D. Paley, ‘Apocapolitics: Allusion and Structure in Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol.54, no.2, Spring 1991, pp.91–109.
  • 22. S.C. Hall (ed.), The Book of Gems: The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain, vol. 3, London 1838. Turner’s copy was presented to him in acknowledgement of an engraving by William Miller after one of his designs to accompany Robert Southey’s poem ‘Sunrise’ (1798) in the same volume.
  • 23. John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, London 1969, pp.145–7, 186.
  • 24. Monthly Review, vol.3, no.4, December 1832, pp.580–5. See also Spectator, 10 November 1832, pp.1067–8.
  • 25. Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, verses xxv–xxxi.
  • 26. Athenaeum, no.262, 3 November 1832, pp.705–77. See also the similar remarks in Metropolitan: A Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and the Fine Arts, vol.5, no.20, 20 December 1832, pp.106–7; and the Monthly Magazine, or, British Register, vol.16, no.91, July 1833, pp.24–5.
  • 27. Times, 13 November 1832, p.3. However, the extracts provided are all from the final portion of the poem.
  • 28. See, for example, the review in the London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, etc., 10 November 1832, p.709. See also the British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review, vol.13, London 1833, pp.176–82.
  • 29. Monthly Review, vol.3, no.4, December 1832, p.582.
  • 30. Literary Examiner, no.1293, 11 November 1832, p.725.
  • 31. Spectator, 10 November 1832, p.1067.
  • 32. Shelley dedicated to Burdett the poem The Wandering Jew; or the Victim of the Eternal Avenger, which was written in 1809–10 and first published in edited versions in the Edinburgh Literary Journal (1829) and Fraser’s Magazine (1831). In his Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (1811) Shelley praised Burdett for raising funds in support of Peter Finnerty, who was imprisoned for libelling Castlereagh. For Shelley and Burdett see also Timothy Webb, Shelley: A Voice not Understood, Manchester 1977, pp.105–6.
  • 33. Morning Chronicle, 21 April 1812, p.1.
  • 34. See Institution and Early Proceedings of the Union for Parliamentary Reform According to the Constitution, London 1812, p.6.
  • 35. Walter Fawkes, Parliamentary reform: speech of Walter Fawkes, esq., late representative in parliament for the county of York, on the subject of parliamentary reform, delivered at the anniversary celebration of the election of Sir Francis Burdett, bart. At the Crown and Anchor Tavern, May 23d, 1812, London 1812, pp.19–20.
  • 36. Walter Fawkes, The Englishman’s Manual; or, a dialogue between a Tory and a Reformer, Leeds 1817. In this pamphlet Fawkes recommended annual parliaments (p.84), but in an election address five years later, he declared himself satisfied with triennial parliaments. See ‘A Yorkshire Freeholder’ [i.e. John Courtney], A letter to the editor of the Yorkshire Gazette on the subject of Mr. Fawkes’s late address to the nobility, gentry, and clergy, of the County of York. To which is prefixed, the address itself, York 1822, p.29. See also J.R. Dinwiddy, Radicalism and Reform in Britain, 1780–1950, London 1992, pp.47–58, 114, 210.
  • 37. ‘Address on the Prince Regent’s Speech at the Opening of the Session’, 23 November 1819, Hansard, vol.41, cc.103–4.
  • 38. The plate was simply titled Wycliffe, near Rokeby, with no additional text, when it was published as an Illustration to Whitaker’s History of Richmondshire, London 1819–23, vol.1, p.197. The British Museum’s engraver’s proof includes a memorandum noting that John Pye, the engraver, and Halsted, the printseller, affirmed that only three or four proofs with the inscription were printed. See W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, London 1908, vol.1, pp.97–8. The fullest discussion of the proof is in Eric Shanes, Turner’s Human Landscape, London 1989, pp.17–21.
  • 39. See Report of the Trial of Humphrey Boyle: indicted at the instance of the Constitutional Association, as “a man with name unknown”, for publishing an alledged blasphemous and seditious libel, London 1822, pp.15–18.
  • 40. For Fawkes and Turner, see Hamilton, Turner’s Britain, pp.169–73.
  • 41. These are now held in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and were exhibited respectively at the British Institution and the Royal Academy.
  • 42. Animal skeletons are depicted in Jason (designed c.1806–7; published 1807) and Little Devil’s Bridge (designed 1806–7; published 1809), engraved for the Liber Studiorum, and in Paestum (engraved c.1825) for the Little Liber. Human and animal bones, presumably a cavalryman and his mount, can be seen in the foreground of the watercolour The Field of Waterloo, from the Picton Tree c.1833 (private collection), engraved for Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon, published in Scott’s Prose Works (1835). For a discussion of their significance see Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Manchester 2007, pp.21–3. Two of the engraved vignettes for Campbell’s Poetical Works (1837) also show skeletons: the watercolours The Death Boat of Heligoland (c.1835; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) and The Last Man (c.1835; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). An emblematic skeleton appears in the foreground of Turner’s oil painting The Angel Standing in the Sun exhibited 1846 (Tate N00550).
  • 43. I owe a profound debt of thanks to Dr Rupert Jones for his insights into the anatomical details Turner depicts. I would also like to thank Dr Siobhan Moyes for her contributions to our discussion and to Debbie Kirvell, Manager of the Life Science Resource Centre, Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, for placing the anatomical collection at our disposal.
  • 44. The Half-length Écorché Figure, Turner Bequest X B, Tate, and the drawings in Princeton Sketchbook ff. 26r-27r held at Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, are all derived from plates in Tinney’s book, whose full title is Compendium Anatomicum: or a Compendious Treatise of Anatomy adapted to the Arts of Painting and Sculpture: in Which the External Muscles of the Human Body are Represented as They Appear when Cleared of the Skin, first published London 1743, with subsequent editions in 1752 and 1762. It is not known when Turner purchased this book. For a discussion of the Princeton sketchbook and illustrations of its anatomical drawings (although not connected there to Tinney’s Compendium), see Robin Hamlyn, ‘An Early Sketchbook by J.M.W. Turner’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, vol.44, no.2, 1985, pp.2–23.
  • 45. William Robertson (ed.), Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the use of Artists, from Drawings by the late John Flaxman, Esq. R.A., London 1833. The anatomical plates were engraved by Henry Landseer, Edwin Landseer’s uncle.
  • 46. Chantrey’s copy belongs to the library of the Royal Academy, London. The nineteen Flaxman drawings, originally bound into this copy, are in the Academy’s Prints and Drawings Collection.
  • 47. Although Chantrey may conceivably have shown Turner the Flaxman drawings from which the engravings derived, which he had bought at Christie’s sale of Flaxman’s library in June 1828, it seems more plausible to suggest that Turner worked from the engraving.
  • 48. An Act for Better Preventing the Horrid crime of Murder (25 Geo. 2, c.37).
  • 49. Hospital schools of anatomy also made use of corpses from their own mortuaries.
  • 50. For a detailed analysis of the proceedings leading to the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, see Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute, 2nd edn, London 2001.
  • 51. Hare turned king’s evidence (was exempted from prosecution for confessing and for testifying against Burke) and Burke was tried for murder in the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh on 24 December 1828; he was hanged on 28 January 1829.
  • 52. See Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London, London 2004.
  • 53. Richardson 2001, pp.230–3.
  • 54. William Cobbett, Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 30 June 1832, vol.76, no.13, pp.783–91. The petition was tabled on 28 June. See House of Lords Journal, vol.64, London 1832, p.333.
  • 55. William Cobbett, Cobbett’s Two-Penny Trash; or Politics for the Poor, vol.2, no.12, 1 July 1832, p.284.
  • 56. All quotations are from Richardson 2001, pp.27, 95, 97, 179.
  • 57. Ibid., especially pp.261–75. See also Ruth Richardson, ‘A Dissection of the Anatomy Act’, Studies in Labour History, no.1, 1976, pp.1–15. For a full account of the interrelationship between the 1832 and 1834 Acts see Elizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and its Trade in the Dead Poor, c.1834–1929, Basingstoke and New York 2012.
  • 58. William Cobbett, Surplus Population and Poor-law Bill: a comedy in three acts, London 1834, p.3.
  • 59. See James Hamilton, Turner: A Life, London 1997, p.252. For a summary of the interlocking social circles in which Turner moved and where he met physicians and scientists see James Hamilton, ‘Artists, Scientists and Events’, in James Hamilton (ed.), Fields of Influence: Conjunctions of Artists and Scientists 1815–1860, Birmingham 2001, especially pp.19–30.
  • 60. In 1823 Carlisle was one of the surgeons whose opinions on the supply of corpses for dissection were solicited and transmitted to the Home Secretary, Robert Peel. See Peel Papers, BM. Add. Mss.40371; cited in Richardson 2001, pp.163–4. Carlisle campaigned for a more efficient use of the bodies that were already legally supplied and argued strongly that it would be immoral to use paupers’ bodies to provide the necessary cadavers.
  • 61. William Somerville was appointed Physician and Surgeon to the Chelsea Hospital in 1832.
  • 62. James C. Somerville, A letter addressed to the Lord Chancellor, on the study of anatomy, London 1832.
  • 63. For Somerville’s career as Inspector see Richardson 2001, pp.239–60, and M.J. Durey, ‘Bodysnatchers and Benthamites: The Implications of the Dead Body Bill for the London Schools of Anatomy, 1820–42’, London Journal, no.2, November 1976, pp.200–25.
  • 64. A large number of Haydon’s anatomical drawings are in the collection of the Royal Academy, London. Studies by one of his pupils, Charles Landseer, are in the collection of the Wellcome Library, London.
  • 65. See Cecilia Powell, ‘Turner’s Women: The Painted Veil’, Turner Society News, no.63, March 1993, pp.12–15; a full account of the Amphitrite disaster was published in Chronicles of the Sea: or, Faithful Narratives of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines and Disasters, no.14, 24 March 1838, pp.105–6.
  • 66. British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review, vol.13, London 1833, p.178.
  • 67. Leeds Mercury, 24 August 1833, p.5.
  • 68. See Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work: Local Politics and National Parties, 1832–1841, Woodbridge 2002, pp.176–82.
  • 69. Leeds Mercury, 3 January 1835, p.8. In a letter to one of his allies in 1841, Fawkes may have been alluding to the poem again when describing the Whig–Liberal alliance as ‘prostrate before a powerful antagonist’. Fawkes to Thomas Wilson, 31 August 1841, quoted in Salmon 2002, p.182.


I would like to thank Eric Shanes for his invaluable comments on an early draft of this paper. The anonymous peer reviewer for Tate Papers also provided me with helpful suggestions for which I am very grateful. Thanks, too, to Fergus Smiles who provided inspirational support at the outset of this research and to Rupert Jones for his anatomical insights.

Sam Smiles is Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth

Tate Papers, no.25, Spring 2016 © Sam Smiles

How to cite

Sam Smiles, 'The Fall of Anarchy: Politics and Anatomy in an Enigmatic Painting by J.M.W. Turner', Tate Papers, no.25, Spring 2016,, accessed 26 April 2018.

Tate Papers (ISSN 1753-9854) is a peer-reviewed research journal that publishes articles on British and modern international art, and on museum practice today.