Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Dentist and his Wife and Son: Study for ‘The Unpaid Bill, or the Dentist Reproving his Son’s Prodigality’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 115 x 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XCIX 73

Catalogue entry

Drawn with the sketchbook inverted, this is one of a group of drawings for The Unpaid Bill, or the Dentist Reproving his Son’s Prodigality (collection of the Schindler Family)1 painted for Richard Payne Knight and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1808. The others are on the verso and folios 78–81 verso (D06487–D06491; Turner Bequest XCIX 73a–75a; D07159; Turner Bequest CXCV (a) 1; D06493, D06494; Turner Bequest XCIX 77, 77a). Payne Knight, an influential collector, connoisseur and arbiter of taste, was forming a collection of pictures to show ‘that the moderns can stand up to the Old Masters’, as reported by the artist Richard Westall to his colleague Joseph Farington in February 1808,2 and Robert Hunt, writing in the Examiner of 15 May the same year, stated that Turner’s picture was conceived as a companion for his client’s ‘cradle-piece’ ascribed to Rembrandt – The Holy Family at Night (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), then known as ‘The Cradle’. In 1808, Payne Knight lent the supposed Rembrandt to the British Institution where it was available to copy. In some notes for his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy perhaps written around this time, Turner was critical of its ‘artificial light and shade’, citing it as ‘a solitary instance [where] a great master may appear contrived’ and urging caution in adopting it as a model.3
Recently exhibited together at Tate Britain, the differences between the two pictures seemed more evident than similarities.4 While Turner’s is almost the same size as The Holy Family and likewise painted on panel, its puzzling satirical-genre subject hardly forms a suitable pendant and it is now generally accepted that Turner’s actual model was another picture in Payne Knight’s collection, The Alchemist or Alchemist’s Laboratory then attributed to David Teniers and now to Gerard Thomas.5 Benjamin West, also according to Farington, thought Turner was reacting to David Wilkie’s recent interior genre scenes,6 but if so this must have been a secondary consideration and the differences between Wilkie’s sentiment and Turner’s satire has been discussed, notably by John Gage.7

David Blayney Brown
December 2009

Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.61–2 no.81 (pl.91).
Diary, 11 February 1808; quoted by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.61.
Greenwich sketchbook (Tate D06758 CII 20 [and see catalogue note to D06749 CII 15 for full transcription]).
Turner and the Masters, Tate Britain, September 2009–January 2010 (41, 42 reproduced).
As first suggested by Michael Clarke and Nicholas Penny, The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight 1751–1824, exhibition catalogue, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1982, pp.184–5. The Alchemist was in Christie’s sale, 4 May 1979 (lot 99) and is reproduced by Clarke and Penny 1982, p.185.
Diary, 16 April 1808; quoted by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.61.
Gage in Gage, Ziff, Alfrey 1983, p.74.

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