Joseph Mallord William Turner

Narcissus and Echo

exhibited 1804

Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 865 × 1170 mm
frame: 1245 × 1548 × 185 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1984. In situ at Petworth House

Catalogue entry

53. [T03869] Narcissus and Echo Exh. 1804

Canvas, 34 × 46 (86·3 × 116·8)

Coll. Bought from Turner by the third Earl of Egremont after 1810 but before 1819 (see below); by descent to the third Lord Leconfield who in 1947 conveyed Petworth to the National Trust; in 1957 the contents of the State Rooms were accepted by the Treasury in part payment of death duties.

Exh. R.A. 1804 (207); B.I. 1806 (258); R.A. 1888 (11); Tate Gallery 1951 (6).

Engr. A soft ground etching by Turner himself for the Liber Studiorum but unpublished (Rawlinson 90).

Lit. Farington Diary 18 May 1804, 16 February 1806; Petworth Inventories 1837, 1856 (North Gallery); Burnet and Cunningham 1852, pp. 44, 112 no. 84, 121 no. 1; Waagen 1854, iii, p. 37; Ruskin 1860 (1903–12, vii, p. 391); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 355; ii, pp. 5–6, 397; 1877, pp. 199–200, 571, 594; Monkhouse 1879, p. 48; Bell 1901, p. 83 no. 106; Armstrong 1902, p. 225; Collins Baker 1920, p. 124 no. 46; Finberg 1924, p. 361; 1961, pp. 109, 122, 171–2, 466 no. 90, 467 no. 95; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 11; Gage 1965, p. 79 n. 33; Lindsay 1966, pp. 127, 309; Gage 1969, pp. 141, 259 n. 71; Joll 1977, pp. 375–6.

Echo, a daughter of the Air and Tellus, was once one of Juno's attendants and became the confidant of Jupiter's amours. Her loquacity, however, displeased Jupiter; and she was deprived of the power of speech by Juno and only permitted to answer the questions which were put to her. After she had been punished by Juno, Echo fell in love with Narcissus and on being despised by him she pined away, and was changed into a stone, which still retained the power of voice.

Exhibited with the following lines:

“So melts the youth, and languishes away;
His beauty withers, and his limbs decay;
And none of those attractive charms remain
To which the slighted Echo sued in vain.
She saw him in his present misery,
Whom, spite of all her wrongs, she griev'd to see:
She answer'd sadly to the lover's moan,
Sigh'd back his sighs, and groan'd to every groan:
‘Ah! youth beloved in vain!’ Narcissus cries;
‘Ah! youth beloved in vain!’ the nymph replies.
‘Farewell!’ says he. The parting sound scarce fell
From his faint lips, but she reply'd ‘Farewell!’”

Rothenstein and Butlin suggest the quotation which accompanied the picture at the R.A. may possibly be by Turner himself. They were evidently unaware, as Gage points out (1969), that Turner had in fact made use of Addison's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book iii ll. 601–12). That the quotation was a translation from Ovid was, however, noticed by the critic of the Star (see below).

The picture was still in Turner's possession c. 1810, for in the ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII) it is listed with its value apparently written down, presumably because it was still unsold. The list is on a page opposite one which refers to a date in November 1809 but it must have been drawn up rather later (the sketchbook includes references to dates as late as 1814) as the Narcissus is lumped together with ‘Cows’ (Abingdon/Dorchester Mead?), ‘Richmond’ and ‘Ploughing’ (presumably Slough (No. 89)). As Slough and Dorchester Mead (No. 107 [N00485]) were exhibited in 1809 and 1810 respectively, it seems unlikely that Turner would have written down their value straightaway. Finberg interprets Turner's notes, which bracket these four pictures together for £200, to mean that Turner had revalued them for ‘stock-taking’ purposes at £50 each, but it is also possible (although I consider it less likely after studying Turner's calculations) that he meant to indicate that this quartet belonged to the category which was normally priced £200 each. If Finberg's theory is correct, then it seems that Egremont may have been tempted to buy it by the reduction in price.To judge from another note in the ‘Farnley’ sketchbook (CLIII) about engravings to be published in the Liber Studiorum on 1 January 1819, Lord Egremont must have owned the picture by this date if Finberg is correct in identifying ‘Lord Egremont's picture’ with the Narcissus. The note shows that it was intended that W. Say should engrave it but in fact only three out of the eight titles listed by Turner as ‘Liber Studiorum Plates out Jan 1 1819’ were in fact published on that date.

Ruskin described it as the first classical subject painted by Turner but Gage suggests that another source may have been an idea of George Field's, that reflection in colour might be compared to ‘echo in sound’, and ‘it is agreeable to this analogy, that Echo was feigned to have pined for Narcissus’. In any case the influence of Gaspard Poussin is paramount in the picture's composition, although the experience of the large Welsh watercolours is also evident.

When the picture was shown at the R.A. the critic of the British Press for 3 May wrote ‘We acknowledge the great beauty of this picture is the landscape ... yet the story is gracefully told ... This picture will bear much critical examination; while its general effect is extremely beautiful, and ranks it in a very high class.’

The Star for 10 May also praised it with reservations, although it said the picture was ‘too affectedly imitative of the manner of a foreign school’ and also that ‘Here again we have another long translation from Ovid, to point out that in the picture which without it would never have been found.’

The Sun for the same date, however, found the picture full of faults, saying that if the artist had not told us the subject ‘it would have been impossible for the most penetrating intellect to have discovered it. There are more figures introduced than might be expected in such a scene and, except Narcissus, they all appear like Statues that had fallen from their places. The general aspect of the colouring is like clay and the trees are much of the same hue as boiled vegetables. A part of the mountain is so strangely detached from the body, that it seems to be flying stone which dropped some years ago in Yorkshire.’

When discussing the exhibition at the British Institution in 1806, Thomas Daniell told Farington that the room was too dark and that ‘Turner's Echo and Hesperian Fruit (see No. 57, [N00477]) looked like old tapestries.’

It seems likely that Turner was attracted to the subject by seeing Claude's picture of Narcissus and Echo (dating from 1644 and now in the National Gallery, London, no. 19). The Claude belonged to Sir George Beaumont by 1790 and hung in his house in London from then until being taken to Coleorton, Beaumont's house in Leicestershire, in 1808. Although Beaumont was later to become a hostile critic of Turner's work, he and Turner seem to have been on reasonably friendly terms in the late 1790s and Turner would certainly have known Beaumont's collection.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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