Joseph Mallord William Turner

Queen Mab’s Cave

exhibited 1846

In Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 921 × 1226 mm
frame: 1070 × 1374 × 70 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

‘Queen Mab’ is described in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as ‘the fairies’ midwife’. She reveals secret hopes in the form of dreams, which she creates by driving her chariot over people as they sleep. Turner referred to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Queen Mab is invoked during Titania’s ‘moonlight revels’. He may also have read Shelley’s poem Queen Mab. This painting was first exhibited in 1846. A reviewer called it ‘a daylight dream in all the wantonness of gorgeous, bright, and positive colour, not painted but apparently flung upon the canvas’.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Catalogue entry

420. [N00548] Queen Mab's Cave Exh. 1846


Canvas, 36 1/4 × 48 1/4 (92 × 122·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (28, ‘Queen Mab's Grotto’ 4'0" × 3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1954.

Exh. B.I. 1846 (57); Australian tour 1960 (15); Victoria and Albert Museum Berlioz 1969 (111, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (B 42).

Lit. Ruskin 1846 (1903–12, iv, p. 342); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 349; 1877, p. 467; Edward T. Cook, A Popular Handbook to the National Gallery 1888, pp. 659–60; Lionel Cust, ‘The Portraits of J.M.W. Turner’, Magazine of Art 1895, pp. 248–9; Bell 1901, p. 156 no. 261; Armstrong 1902, p. 227; Falk 1938, pp. 74, 150 n. 1; Davies 1946, pp. 152, 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 413, 509 no. 572; Gage 1969, pp. 146–7, 264–5 n.152; Stuckey 1976, p. 167; Wilton 1979, p. 198; Ziff 1980, p. 170.

Exhibited at the British Institution in 1846 with the lines:

‘Frisk it, frisk it, by the Moonlight beam’.

Midsummer's Night's Dream.

‘Thy Orgies, Mab, are manifold’. —MSS Fallacies of Hope

Davies suggests that the apparent reference to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream might have been intended to form part of a three-line quotation from the Fallacies of Hope, and that the form in which the lines appear in the catalogue is the result of Turner's, or the printer's, carelessness.

The picture was possibly painted in part in response to Francis Danby's An Enchanted Island, first exhibited and engraved in 1825 but G.H. Phillips' mezzotint of which was republished in 1841 (repr. Eric Adams, Francis Danby: Varieties of Poetic Landscape 1973, pl. 35). The earlier 1840s saw Danby's attempt to reestablish his reputation in London after nearly ten years' exile abroad. In its turn Danby's picture, painted after he settled in London in 1824, reflects Turner's feeling for light.

For the Art Union, March 1846, the picture ‘admits of more than a usual employment of the vague, illusive, and fanciful; and full advantage is taken by the artist to play with the means he commands to produce a daylight dream in all the wantoness of gorgeous, bright, and positive colour, not painted but apparently flung upon the canvas in kaleidoscopic confusion.

Ruskin, in an Addendum to the first edition of Modern Painters ii, 1846, reviewing the British Institution exhibition of that year, also criticises the work: ‘Among the various failures, I am sorry to have to note the prominent one of Turner's; a strange example of the way in which the greatest men may at times lose themselves, form causes it is impossible to trace.’ ‘Nothing ... could be more unfortunate than the central portion of the picture in the Institution, a heavy mass of hot colour being employed in the principal shade, and a strange meaningless green spread over the delicate hues of the distance, while the shadows on the right were executed with pure and crude blue, such as I believe cannot be shown in any other work whatsoever of the great painter.’

However, Jerrold Ziff points to a more positive approach on the part of the critic of The Connoisseur for 2 March 1846, who quoted Constable, probably from the recent second edition of Charles Leslie's Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 1845: ‘Turner has some golden visions; they are only visions, but, still they are Art; and one could live and die with such pictures.’

This picture is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most frequently imitated of Turner's works, one such version being in the Cleveland Museum (ex. Earl of Arran Collection; repr. Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition Cleveland 1936, pl. 60). One reason could be the special facilities given, it seems, by the British Institution for the copying of selected works after the closure of their exhibitions; see No. 210.

Lïonel Cust identified this picture as the one for which there is an eye-witness account of Turner's activity in finishing it on the British Institution's walls, but John Gage has identified this as Regulus (No. 294, q.v. [N00519]).

This thickly painted picture has suffered from a considerable amount of flaking and crackle.

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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