Joseph Mallord William Turner

Solitude (‘The Reading Magdalene’)


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 185 × 260 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXVIII A

Catalogue entry

Etching and mezzotint by Turner and William Say, untitled, published Turner, ?1 January 1816 although dated 12 May 1814
There are no direct studies known for Turner’s Liber Studiorum design. His only reference to the composition appears to read ‘Castle & Mn’ (see below). Gillian Forrester notes that Turner’s friend and patron Charles Stokes’s contemporary Liber inventory gives the title as ‘Magdalene Reading’, an apparent expansion of ‘Mn’.1 St Mary Magdalene does not appear elsewhere in Turner’s work; the published plate was untitled, and although the early published sources list it as ‘Solitude’,2 the 1872 Liber exhibition catalogue which codified most of the titles notes both alternatives.3 Forrester relays John Gage’s suggestion of a connection with Richard Wilson’s 1762 painting Solitude, showing monks or hermits in sequestered contemplation of a wooded landscape (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea);4 the composition had also been engraved in 1778. However, she acknowledges that there is ‘no evidence’ that Turner referred to his own composition by this title.5
Generic, non-scriptural depictions of the penitent Mary Magdalene (sometimes in the wilderness) including those by artists of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries such as Caravaggio, Guercino, Guido Reni and Simon Vouet, had traditionally included attributes such as a book or scroll, crown of thorns, crucifix, jar of ointment, mirror or skull, often with vanitas or memento mori connotations. In his Liber drawing, Turner shows the half-draped figure looking down at a roughly scratched-out book, with a jar and hourglass at her left elbow; in the published print, the figure looks ahead, the book is lost in shade, the jar moved and the hourglass gone. The figure appears to echo some of Turner’s small life studies in the Academies sketchbook (Tate D05197, D05227; Turner Bequest LXXXIV 26, 54).
The deer grazing undisturbed to the left emphasises the contemplative atmosphere. Stopford Brooke wondered about the significance of the various elements:
Forrester 1996, p.114.
Burnet and Cunningham 1859, p.121 no.21; Thornbury 1862, II, p.388 no.2; Turner’s Liber Studiorum. Photographs from the Thirty Original Drawings, 1861, pl.[24].
[Taylor and Vaughan] 1872, p.37 no.53.
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.213 no.101, reproduced p.212.
Forrester 1996, p.114.
John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.
Brooke 1885, pp.[177]–8.
Liber Veritatis; or a Collection of Prints after the Original Designs of Claude Le Lorrain ..., London 1777, vol.I, pl.77; from 1644 original drawing by Claude Lorrain (British Museum, London, 1957–12–14–83: Michael Kitson, Claude Lorrain: Liber Veritatis, London 1978, pp.99, 101, reproduced pl.77).
Liber Veritatis, vol.II, pl.162; from 1664 drawing (BM 1957–12–14–166: Kitson, pp.153–4, reproduced pl.162).
Forrester 1996, p.161.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.107–15; 1906, pp.125–36; Finberg 1924, pp.205–24.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.303 no.515, pl.517 (colour).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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