Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Subject from the Runic Superstitions ...

exhibited 1808

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 921 × 1219 mm
frame: 1200 × 1490 × 133 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

The subject of this painting is obscure. It was exhibited, possibly unfinished, in 1808, when it was related to Runic, or Norse traditions. Such myths had frequently been painted by Henry Fuseli, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy.

Emerging from the gloom, a seated woman raises her arm, as if to conjure up the terrifying apparition on the right. In 1812 Turner published a modified version of the image under the title ‘Rispah’. The name refers to Saul’s concubine, an Old Testament character, who protected the decaying bodies of her sons from nocturnal predators.

Gallery label, February 2010

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

79. [N00464] A Subject from the Runic Superstitions (?); Reworking of ‘Rispah watching the Bodies of her Sons’ Exh. 1808?

Canvas, 36 1/2 × 48 (91·5 × 122)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (82, ‘Rizpah’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh:? Turner's gallery 1808 (see text); Tate Gallery 1931 (12); R.A. 1974–5 (85).

Engr. By R. Dunkarton for the Liber Studiorum, R.46, and published 23 April 1812; the preliminary pen and sepia drawing from the Vaughan Bequest is catalogued with the Turner Bequest as CXVII-U and repr. Finberg 1924, p. 182; the etching and engraving repr. pp. 182–3.

Lit. Ruskin 1856, 1860 and 1857 (1903–12, v, p. 399; vi, p. 26; vii, p. 386; xiii, p. 119); Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 262, 277–8; ii, p. 332; 1877, pp. 418, 497, 530–31; Armstrong 1902, p. 228; MacColl 1920, p. 3; Finberg 1924, p. 183; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 142, 147; Gage 1969, p. 56, pl. 46; Wilton 1979, p. 196.

This picture seems originally to have shown ‘Rispah watching the Bodies of her Sons’ (2 Samuel xxi, 9–10) and was engraved under this title for the Liber Studiorum. In the engraving Rispah is shown protecting the bodies of her two sons by Saul from predatory birds and beasts ‘in the days of the harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of the barley harvest’ (see Plate 560).

Subsequent to the preparation of the Liber Studiorum engraving, which could have been at least begun any time after the scheme was first mooted in 1806, Turner overpainted the oil painting, replacing the bodies of Rispah's sons by enormous insects dragging off the bodies of other creatures, adding another female figure behind that of Rispah and introducing several spectral figures and a mysteriously glowing light on the right. The subject now seems to be a scene of incantation, possibly suggested by the encounter of Saul and the Witch of Endor during which the ghost of Samuel foretold the death of Saul and his sons (1 Samuel xxvii, 8–20). However, though one of the apparitions could well be Samuel, ‘covered with a mantle’, and the others include a soldier about to slay with a sword a child held by another, the putative Saul is a woman with bare breasts.

What was almost certainly this picture was shown at Turner's gallery in 1808 when it was described in the Review of Publications of Art ii, pp. 166–7. The reviewer, who seems to have been John Landseer, was obviously baffled by the subject which had presumably already been altered by Turner: ‘Of an unfinished picture which hangs at the upper end of the room, the subject of which is taken from the Runic superstitions, and where the artist has conjured up mysterious spectres and chimeras dire, we forbear to speak at present.

‘At the lower end of the room is a larger picture of two of the DANISH SHIPS which were seized at COPENHAGEN (see No. 80 [N00481]) ...’

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984


You might like

In the shop