Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Notes on Sunlight; with a Diagram


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 89 a

Catalogue entry

The whole page is taken up with the following notes, including a diagram towards the foot, taking up about a third of the overall height:
upon the [?shore] line of the Building that bears | the same line of parrallel degree [?even if] | [?if we] conclude with the worthy aim we | [?applaud] Greek [‘Socrates’ inserted above] who dare to say that the Sun | was a Plate of heated Iron and for which | he was banishd his native country for w[...] | t[...] [?contin...] the gods even then our | common observation would teach us to | say then that even that must give a | light diverging to the utmost degree of | the parrallel line of that plate thus
Here there is a diagram of a flat plane seen from the side, with rays emanating to the left at many different angles. The notes continue:
and therefore they would not be parallel | but in the words of others who concluded
This passage follows on from the opposite page, folio 90 recto (D07508) and continues on the recto of the present leaf (D07506). It is part of a sequence beginning on folio 91 verso (D07511), and running back to folio 82 verso (D07493). John Gage has discussed these provisional notes (not developed in the perspective lectures) as an example of Turner’s close observation of natural phenomena,1 in this case the question of sunlight travelling in parallel lines or otherwise, responding to a chapter of The Art of Painting by Gérard de Lairesse (1640–1711), in the English translation by John Frederick Frisch (London 1738 and later editions).2 See under D07511 for a discussion of Lairesse’s text. Maurice Davies has registered Turner’s notes as ‘on light and shadow’, as part of a longer sequence running back to folio 72 verso (D07473).3
Although Turner has added ‘Socrates’ to his notes, Gage has suggested that another ancient Greek, Sophocles, was intended, as at Soctrates’ trial ‘the sun was described as a stone’, while Sophocles ‘described the sun as a disk’.4

Matthew Imms
June 2008

Gage 1969, p.252 note 217.
Ibid., p.178, as ‘TB CVIII, pp. 99a–82a’ (first folio actually 91a); see also Davies 1992, pp.51, 108 note 85.
Davies 1994, p.289.
Gage 1969, pp.133, 256 note 26, citing Plato, Apology, 26D and Sophocles, Antigone 416, respectively.

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