Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Ship and Figures


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
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 1

Catalogue entry

The ship is of ancient design. Nicholson describes it as ‘an ornate little ship with rowers ready for departure’. Two figures greet each other. Turner owned a copy of a 1657 edition of Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans Compared Together1 and also the 1786 edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s Roman History. In the front of the latter he jotted a list of subjects: ‘Cleopatra sailing down the Cydnus | Hannibal crossing the Alps | his departure from Carthage the | decline of that Empire – Regulus returns ... | Pompey. Arrival at ?Lesbos after the | Battle’.2 The Pompey and Cleopatra ideas are repeated here.
Pompey married Cornelia as his fifth wife in 52BC; she witnessed his murder from their ship when he stepped ashore in Egypt, having fled Rome after defeat by his rival Julius Caesar. Brutus married Portia (Porcia) in 45BC after divorcing his previous wife. Having also plotted against Caesar, he was forced into exile in Macedonia and committed suicide after defeat in the second battle of Philippi in 43BC. Turner’s third idea for this subject, Antony and Cleopatra, is elaborated on folio 84 verso of the sketchbook (D05671). In 41BC, Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra, who was suspected of giving assistance to Cassius, one of the assassins of Caesar, to his headquarters in Anatolia. She sailed from Egypt across the Mediterranean to Tarsus, up the River Cydnus. In no mood to apologise, she arrived in a golden barge dressed as Aphrodite and Mark Antony was immediately smitten. Despite this, Hill cites the sketch as evidence of Turner’s tendency to dwell on ‘fateful partings from widows’ (Cornelia, Portia and Cleopatra all having lost their husbands and lovers) and speculates on a possible connection with his relationship with Sarah Danby, the widow alleged to be his lover and the mother of his natural daughters.3 In this analysis, Turner’s personal emotional circumstances join his experience of the Thames landscape as subjects for imaginative transformation in the sketchbook.

David Blayney Brown
August 2007

Andrew Wilton, Turner in his Time, London 1987, p.247.
Andrew Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.80, where ‘Lesbos’ is given as ‘Lisbon’.
Hill 1993, p.59. For Danby see Jean Golt, ‘Sarah Danby out of the Shadows’, Turner Studies, vol.9, no.2, Winter 1989, pp.3–10.

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