The lower part of the sheet is filled with a study in brown wash and pen, and shows figures in a ruin. Turner scholar David Hill suggests that this is Kirkstall Abbey and compares the study in the Tweed and Lakes sketchbook (Tate D01083; Turner Bequest XXXV 81). Although not conclusive, this seems likely. The figures on the other hand are clearly intended to represent the Adoration of the Shepherds, the group in the illuminated arch including the Virgin and Child who are studied in more detail in the small pen sketches in the top half of the sheet. To the left, one shepherd looks towards the light, carrying a crook.
This is the first known instance of Turner’s tackling a religious subject. He was to take up the theme again in a Holy Family picture exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 (Tate N00473).1 A rough sketch in the Calais Pier book (Tate D04935; Turner Bequest LXXXI 34), presumably made around 1803–5, appears to show a Nativity scene with the Adoration of the Shepherds. It is perhaps worth recording here the interest Turner took in Joshua Reynolds’s famous design for the west window of New College Chapel, Oxford, which takes the form of an Adoration of the Shepherds in which Reynolds (1723–1792) casts himself as one of the shepherds, a figure carefully copied by Turner into his drawing of the chapel made in 1798–1800 (Tate D02347; Turner Bequest L F).
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.38 – 9 no.49, pl.60.
The lower right corner has been torn away, and the sheet folded horizontally, just above the centre.
Blank; a paint splash; stamped in brown ink with Turner Bequest monogram.