Joseph Mallord William Turner



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 181 × 253 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Turner Bequest CXVII U

Catalogue entry

?John Landseer
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer by 1872
Henry Vaughan by 1878, possibly acquired directly from Landseer before his death in 1873
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Robert Dunkarton, ‘Rispah | 2nd,, Book of Samuel. Chap. 21.’, published Turner, 23 April 1812
Turner’s Liber Studiorum composition relates to the story of Rizpah [sic], as narrated in the Old Testament. King David delivered seven of his predecessor Saul’s family, including two sons by Rizpah, as reparation for Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites. They were
put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest. And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.1
At first sight, the composition relates very closely to Turner’s painting A Subject from the Runic Superstitions, apparently exhibited at his gallery in 1808 (Tate N00464);2 it seems to be the work described by the engraver and writer John Landseer in a contemporary review as ‘an unfinished picture ..., the subject of which is taken from the Runic superstitions, and where the artist has conjured up mysterious spectres and chimeras dire.’3 These appear against the dark bank on the right and to the lower left, and the veiled figure (with a second, shadowy figure behind her) points to or conjures the main group – rather holding a torch to ward off animals from the skeletal remains of her sons and the others introduced in the Liber design. It had previously been assumed that the present composition records an earlier state of the painting,4 but subsequent x-ray images have shown that the latter was not extensively reworked, and Gillian Forrester has suggested that Turner used the general arrangement of the painting as the basis for a new, unrelated subject.5
On a number of occasions, Ruskin used the composition as an example of one extreme of the range of emotions addressed in the Liber, and Turner’s wide sympathies.6 He saw it as a prime expression of sorrow, with Rizpah ‘desolate by her last sons slain, among the beasts of the field’7 and as a type of ‘human love’, ‘more than dead, beside her children.’8 Stopford Brooke admired the way ‘horror and maternal love are so woven together that the love purifies the horror and the horror dignifies the love. ... It was out of [Turner’s] power to make the figure of Rizpah beautiful with the beauty of great tragedy. But through simplicity and directness he has made her as weird as if her sorrow belonged to the childhood of the world.’ He observed that the ‘passion and horror’ were also expressed through the dark, moonlit landscape, with ‘the blacker pond, stagnating in its own darkness’. ‘And when we have seen it all, then the figure takes into itself nobility. ... like an Indian woman, – for the connection is savage, – amid the graveyard of her tribe; ... Like Agamemnon’s head when Iphigenia was slain, hers is veiled.’9 Brooke also noticed the similarity of the pose to that of one of the grieving women in the Tenth Plague of Egypt (for Liber drawing, see Tate D08162; Turner Bequest CXVIII H).
2 Samuel 21:9–11.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.60 no.79, pl.89; see also Andrew Wilton, in Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.130–1.
Quoted ibid.
Forrester 1996, p.107; see also p.108 note 1.
Letter to the Rev. H.G. Liddell, 12 October 1844, transcribed in Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.673; ibid., VI 1904, p.26; ibid., XII 1904, p.370; ‘Catalogue of the Rudimentary Series’ in Instructions in Practice of Elementary Drawing ..., in ibid., XXI 1906, p.224
Ibid., VII 1903, p.386.
Ibid., p.434.
Brooke 1885, pp.[155], 156, 157; Rawlinson 1878, pp.95–6.
Forrester 1996, p.108 note 5.
[Taylor and Vaughan] 1872, p.35.
Forrester 1996, p.107.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.86–96; 1906, pp.101–13; Finberg 1924, pp.165–84.
Ibid.: 1878, p.197; 1906, p.232; 1924, p.184.
Forrester 1996, p.107.
Taylor and Vaughan 1872, p.35.
Rawlinson 1878, p.95.
Forrester 1996, p.108 note 5.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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