Joseph Mallord William Turner

From Spenser’s Fairy Queen


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 182 × 256 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Turner Bequest CXVII L

Catalogue entry

Henry Vaughan, probably after 1878
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Thomas Hodgetts, ‘From Spenser’s Fairy Queen’, published Turner, [?1] June 1811
The Faerie Queene, first published in 1590 and 1596, was the major work of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (circa 1552–1599). Stopford Brooke suggested that, although there was no precise textual source for the action of the seated figure, Turner’s Liber Studiorum composition may have been inspired by the landscape imagery of the poem, describing the setting of the cave of Despair:1
Ere long they come, where that same wicked wight
His dwelling has, low in an hollow cave,
Farre underneath a craggie clift ypight,
Darke, dolefull, drearie, like a greedie grave,
That still for carrion carcases doth crave:
On top whereof aye dwelt the ghastly Owle,
Shrieking his balefull note, which ever drave
Farre from that haunt all other chearefull fowle;
And all about it wandring ghostes did waile and howle.
And all about old stockes and stubs of trees,
Whereon nor fruit, nor leafe was ever seene,
Did hang upon the ragged rocky knees;
On which had many wretches hanged beene,
Whose carcases were scattered on the greene,
And throwne about the cliffs.2
Brooke explored the landscape imagery at length, to demonstrate its appropriateness for the grim subject; he noted the tree on the right (the left as engraved), ‘whose sinuous strength is wrought out inch by inch by the artist, and whose top, in symbol of the horror and crying of Despair, ends like the open mouth of a dragon.’3 Similar observations have been made concerning the trees surrounding the monster’s lair in Jason (see entry on Liber drawing, Tate D08106; Turner Bequest CXVI E).
Gillian Forrester has also considered the episode as the basis for Turner’s treatment: the Redcrosse Knight (symbolic of St George, England’s patron saint)4 is abandoned and weakened at this stage, though later recovers sufficiently to kill a dragon. Forrester has speculated on a further level of meaning, ‘as an allegory of the condition of England during the wars with Napoleon’, the constant background to most of the period of the Liber’s production.5
Brooke 1885, pp.[116]–17.
Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, I. ix. verses 33 and 34.
Brooke 1885, pp.118–19.
See ‘The Redcrosse Knight’ in Margaret Drabble ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th ed., Oxford (1985) 1988, pp.814–15.
Forrester 1996, p.96.
Ibid., pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, Turner’s Liber Studiorum, A Description and a Catalogue, London 1878, pp.69–76; 1906, pp.80–9; Finberg 1924, pp.125–44.
Forrester 1996, p.28.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.283 no.451, pl.452, as ‘The Cave of Despair, from Spenser’s “Faery Queene”?’.
Ibid., pp.277–8 no.439, pl.444.
Not listed among the Liber studies Vaughan then owned in Rawlinson 1878.
Forrester 1996, p.24 note 74.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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