Joseph Mallord William Turner

Aesacus and Hesperie


On loan

ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum (Aarhus, Denmark): Turner Watercolours: Sun is God

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Etching and watercolour on paper
Support: 180 × 257 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVIII L

Display caption

In this unusual sheet, the etching for one of the plates in the Liber Studiorum has been printed over the top of Turner's watercolour. Turner etched some of the plates for this project himself, but it is
not clear why this etching was printed
in this way.


This classical subject was assigned to
the category of historical landscape. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Aesacus was a young man who was turned into a diving bird in order to thwart his attempts to kill himself for the love of Hesperie.


Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner, ‘Æsacus and Hesperie | Vide Ovid Mets. Book XI.’, published Turner, 1 January 1819 (see main catalogue entry)
As noted in the lettering of Turner’s Liber Studiorum print as published, the story of Aesacus and Hesperie is related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a source of several designs based on stories of love and/or transformation: the others are Cephalus and Procris and Glaucus and Scylla (see Tate D08144, D08170; Turner Bequest CXVII P, CXVIII P), and Appulia in Search of Apullus, Pan and Syrinx and Narcissus and Echo.1
The present composition is Turner’s only known treatment of the episode: Aesacus sees Hesperie drying her hair by the river; she subsequently flees at his approach and is fatally bitten by a snake, whereupon Aesacus tries to commit suicide by jumping from a sea cliff but is transformed into a diving bird.2 There are two pencil and ink studies of Hesperie (with her head turned away) in the Aesacus and Hesperie sketchbook (Tate D40932; Turner Bequest CLXIX, inside front cover), which comprises paper watermarked 1817.3 Aesacus’s pose is perhaps an unconscious echo of Jason’s as he stalks the dragon in Turner’s earlier Liber composition (see Tate D08106; Turner Bequest CXVI E). No freehand study for the whole composition is known, the present work being an impression of Turner’s etched outline, with the tones indicated in watercolour (see technical notes below); Rawlinson did not mention this sheet in the first edition of his Liber catalogue, noting instead ‘an Etching slightly washed-in in sepia, but hardly sufficient, I think, to have been of use as a guide for mezzotinting’ in a private collection.4
Stopford Brooke thought the design ‘of all the Liber Studiorum, the most romantic, and perhaps the most beautiful. ... The scenery is that of the English woodland and river, and the figures come forth from Turner’s unschooled and childlike imagination. ... By force of their childlikeness they realize the childhood of the world.’5 In this he partly followed Ruskin, who had detected the way ‘English willows by the brooks, and English forest glades, mingle even with the heroic foliage’.6 Ruskin also used the composition as a prime example of Turner’s tree drawing: ‘Of the arrangement of the upper boughs, the Æsacus and Hesperie is perhaps the most consummate example; the absolute truth and simplicity, and the freedom from everything like fantasticism or animal form, being as marked on the one hand, as the exquisite imaginitiveness of the lines on the other.’7
Respectively: W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, Turner’s Liber Studiorum, A Description and a Catalogue, London 1878, pp.144–5 no.72, 158 no.80, 168 no.90; Rawlinson 1906, pp.169–70 no.72, 183 no.80, 195 no.90; Finberg 1924, pp.287–90 no.72, 319–21 no.80, 359–61 no.90.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI. 749–95 (particularly 764–70).
Finberg 1909, I, p.488.
Rawlinson 1878, p.132.
Brooke 1885, pp.225, 226.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.236.
Ibid., p.586.
Ibid., IV 1903, p.248
The Elements of Drawing, in ibid., Volume XV: The Elements of Drawing; The Elements of Perspective; and The Laws of Fésole, London 1904, p.121 fig.26
Ibid., VII 1903, p.434.
Lectures on Landscape, in ibid., XXII 1906, pp.65, 67
Forrester 1996, pp.161–3 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.160 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.163 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.126–34; 1906, pp.148–58; Finberg 1924, pp.245–64.
Forrester 1996, p.128 note 4.
Martin Hardie, The Liber Studiorum Mezzotints of Sir Frank Short, R.A., P.R.E. after J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Catalogue & Introduction, London 1938, p.54 no.17, reproduced p.[85] pl.III.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986 – 88, London 1996, p.73.
Forrester 1996, p.128, reporting Joyce Townsend’s findings.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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