Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Classical Harbour


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 150 × 258 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XC 49 a

Catalogue entry

See note to folio 1 of the sketchbook (D05491) for its various composition studies of an ancient seaport with figures arriving or departing, and their sometimes interchangeable subjects. Ideas for this version, focused on the triumphant return of a hero or captive, are noted by Turner in his inscription beginning on this leaf, ‘Jason: arrival at Colchis | Ulysses: at Cryse’, and continuing on folio 50 (D05569), ‘Females dancing and crowning the rope [?] with flowers, in the Foreground Figures rejoicing | The left – the Priest awaiting to receive the Fleece. Jason & Argonauts on Board bearing the Fleece | Ulysses with Chryseis offering her to her Father’.
The episodes in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece were most likely known to Turner from translations by Francis Fawkes of the Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius. The Asian city of Colchis, home of Medea and the court of King Aetes, was the Argonauts’ destination before Jason captured the Fleece; they then returned to Iolchos, a seaport in Thessaly, where they were greeted with festivities. Turner’s inscription above the drawing sems to cite the former city while that on folio 50 must refer to the latter. An upright classical landscape composition on folio 58 verso (D05584) is labelled by Turner with alternative subjects including ‘Return of the Argo’. For Chryses and his daughter, see especially folio 34 (D05541). The reading of Turner’s final word on the present sheet as ‘Cryse’ (that is, their home city of Chryse) would fit the present subject better than ‘Euryalus’ (Ulysses’s illegitimate son), proposed by Hill, or the puzzling ‘Crusa’ given by Finberg. Moreover as Nicholson observes, the composition is similar to that on folio 34 which Turner associated with the return of Chryseis. Wilton misread Turner’s ‘Ulysses’ in the last line on folio 50 as ‘Odysseus’.1
Finberg observed in the present drawing ‘some resemblance’ to Dido Building Carthage (National Gallery, London)2 but this was probably not foreseen by Turner. More convincing is Warrell’s comparison of Turner’s design to Claude’s Seaport with the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (National Gallery, London) which had been bought by John Julius Angerstein in 1803.3

David Blayney Brown
August 2007

Wilton 2006, p.288
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.94–6 no.131 (pl.133).
Warrell in Warrell, Chavanne and Kitson 2002, p.58.

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