Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Notes on Painting in Relation to Poetry


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 115 × 88 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CVIII 53 a

Catalogue entry

The whole page is taken up with the following notes:
The Painter thoughts are inseperable while | the Poets are imaginary as they relate to | personification only that is attributable to | imagination only. he seeks for attributes | or sentiments to illustrate what he has seen in nature, and if he hints at the | effect it is composed from.
– as like the sun just risen shines thro | misty air shorn of his beams to elevate | falen dignity.
But the Painter must adhere to the truth | of nature and has to give that dignity with | the means of dignity or must produce it | by other means and the mind is allowed | him it must be deliberate while the | queenly force [?into] obscurity to evince | that the luminary must have lost his | beam must be conveyd1
This is the first passage in a series working back through the sketchbook to folio 48 verso (D07438). Andrew Wilton has described the arguments as ‘tortuously expressed’ but including ‘interesting reflections on the essential differences between the tasks of painter and poet’ and ‘dynamism in the depiction of nature’.2 The next page in the sequence is folio 52 verso (D07446).
The crabbed handwriting of the first paragraph has been transcribed rather differently by Jerrold Ziff: ‘The painter’s beauties are defineable while the poet’s are imaginary as they relate to his associations’.3 (In quoting from this page, Gerald Finley, Barry Venning and Sam Smiles have closely followed this reading,4 but Wilton and Turner’s, as largely followed in the full transcription here, seems the most likely.)
Taking his cue from his reading ‘associations’, Ziff mentions Turner’s study of Mark Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination (1744 and later editions); more generally, he suggests the effect on Turner’s argument of Martin Archer Shee’s 1805 Rhymes on Art, with its ‘attempts to elevate painting over poetry’.5 Finley has suggested that Turner was able to resolve this artistic dichotomy by moving from a ‘descriptive’ to a more ‘expressive’ approach, particularly in his later illustrations, where he ‘employed devices equivalent to those found in poetry’6 through symbolism.

Matthew Imms
June 2008

See Wilton and Turner 1990, p.137 (transcription, followed here with slight variations).
Ibid.; see also Lindsay 1966, pp.240–1.
Ziff 1964, p.197.
Finley 1980, p.32; Venning 1982, pp.39–40; Smiles 2006, p.183.
Ziff 1964, p.197; for ‘Associationism’, Akenside and Shee see Wilton and Turner 1990, pp.16, 88–91 and 23–8 respectively.
Finley 1980, pp.32–3.

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