Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for a Classical Seaport Subject, Possibly ‘Dido Directing the Equipment of the Fleet’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 111 × 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCIV 7 a

Catalogue entry

Inverted relative to the sketchbook’s foliation, this sketch has been developed to quite an elaborate degree, showing a classical seaport populated by a large number of figures and focusing particularly on a gesticulating man and a woman just right of centre in the foreground. Kathleen Nicholson1 has compared the figure of the woman to the statuesque, bare-armed representation of Dido in Dido Building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1815 (National Gallery, London);2 the man beside her is presumably her Trojan lover Aeneas.3
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll4 have suggested the drawing as relating to the similar subject of Turner’s oil Dido Directing the Equipment of the Fleet, or The Morning of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828 (Tate N00506).5 They also mention an 1827 ink and chalk drawing (Tate D20818; Turner Bequest CCXXVII a 15)6 which Finberg had recognised as a study for the painting;7 albeit relatively slight, it is close in overall terms to the architectural composition of the painting. The key common feature of the painting and the ink drawing is the open water completely bisecting the two sides of the harbour, in which the sun is reflected, as it had been in Dido Building Carthage. Another related subject, The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1817 (Tate N00499),8 differs conspicuously in showing a broad stone quay across the foreground, similar to that in the present drawing, as a setting for carefully arranged figure groups.
In the 1828 Dido Directing, the most prominent group of figures is relegated to the middle distance and shown on a much smaller relative scale (the painting is now in very poor condition and its original state is best seen in the rather murky photograph reproduced by Butlin and Joll); as Nicholson notes, it ‘does not follow the sketch’s emphasis, but instead seems to concentrate on architectural display and on an essentially scenic view of a grand harbor.’9 As both the earlier Carthage paintings remained in Turner’s possession, he was able to consider various permutations of their compositions in developing the third; Ian Warrell has also suggested that the present drawing represents a ‘preliminary stage’ in that process.10 The provisional nature of the composition is indicated by the presence of two low suns, side by side towards the left.

Matthew Imms
November 2014

Nicholson 1990, p.281.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.94–6 no.131, pl.133 (colour).
See Warrell 2002, p.194.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.149.
Ibid., pp.149–50 no.241, pl.243.
Ibid., p.149.
Finberg 1909, II, p.700.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.100–1 no.135, pl.137 (colour).
Nicholson 1990, p.281.
Warrell 2002, p.194; see also caption for this work Warrell’s 2000 Tate Britain Pure as Italian Air: Turner and Claude Lorrain exhibition, preserved in the Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain.

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