Joseph Mallord William Turner

Figures in an Interior


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 171 × 262 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XCIII 23

Catalogue entry

See Introduction to the sketchbook and note to folio 22 verso (D05801) for its various studies of (mainly rustic) figures. Here as in 22 verso the figures are in an interior. Taking his cue from Finberg’s description of folio 25 verso (D05807) as ‘Figures in distress’, and perhaps from then fairly recent art-historical trends,1 Hill associates these collectively with rural unrest, poverty and ‘a figure composition with a radical socio-political theme’. However, there is considerable variety in the actions and settings depicted in the various drawings and the mood seems sometimes more comic-grotesque than tragic. Finberg himself described the figures in folios 23 verso and 24 verso (D05803, D05805) as ‘carousing’. 23 verso probably depicts the harvest being brought in to Cassiobury Park – perhaps the ‘last load’ before the harvest feast that Turner drew elsewhere and started to paint (see Sketchbooks and Drawings Connected with Cassiobury Park and Harvest Pictures for the Earl of Essex circa 1807–12). This at least would not have been a time of misery.
Hill describes the present drawing as a ‘meeting of men, possibly at a tavern’ and (assuming Turner was working backwards in the sketchbook at this point) as a development, with 24 verso, of 25 verso, a ‘scene of desperate rural poverty’. He draws attention to figures speaking or shouting, while others ‘sit gloomily or gloweringly’ or thrust hands in pockets ‘in frustration’. He suggests the influence of pictures by George Morland exhibited in 1805 at Macklin’s Great Room, Fleet Street, and his scenario would also be reminiscent of David Wilkie’s Village Politicians shown at the Royal Academy in 1806 (private collection). A different possibility, that this scene is on board a ship, is suggested in pencil annotations to a copy of Finberg in Tate’s Library. To the present writer this seems if anything more plausible than the distressed peasant theme, as the walls and ceiling are curved and the timbers resemble bulkheads while a standing figure looks like a trousered sailor. Turner certainly took the sketchbook on a trip down the Thames (see Introduction).

David Blayney Brown
October 2007

See for example John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730–1840, Cambridge 1980.

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