Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Group of Figures Dancing and Listening to a Harpist


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Ink and graphite on paper
Support: 135 × 210 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXIX 18

Catalogue entry

This is one of many drawings in which Turner worked out ideas for the figures in a picture, or possibly a series of pictures, concerning the fate of the Bards of ancient Wales. He exhibited a large watercolour treating that theme in 1800, the view of Caernarvon Castle, North Wales (Tate D04164; Turner Bequest LXX M);1 this includes a harpist surrounded by listeners, but there are no dancers. Other sketches in this sequence are on folios 86 verso (D04100) and inside the back cover (D04101; Turner Bequest LXIX 87). See also the related studies Tate D04165, D04168 and D04185 (Turner Bequest LXX N, Q, h).
Turner’s conception of the circle of dancing women is derived from Roman reliefs, and perhaps from the chain of dancers in the 1633–4 painting of The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), now in the National Gallery, London, which seems to have been in his mind in connection with a Bible subject, from 1 Kings; see folios 20 recto and 21 recto (D04014, D04015). The dancers may have been more directly inspired, however, by the dancing figures in a large-scale composition by James Barry (1741–1806) for the Royal Society of Arts in London, A Grecian Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to the Rural Deities Ceres, Bacchus, etc., part of his cycle The Progress of Human Culture, painted between 1777 and 1784.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.329 no.263, pl.52.
Technical notes:
Leather stains on this sheet indicate that it was originally the last leaf in the book, opposite the overlaps inside the back cover; compare folio 8 recto (D04002), evidently bound originally at the beginning.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

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