Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for a Landscape with Mercury and Argus


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Pen and ink on paper
Support: 150 × 258 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest XC 54

Catalogue entry

This sketch, extending very slightly on folio 53 verso (D40573), begins a series representing subjects from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which continue on the verso (D05576) and then on folios 55, 55 verso, 56, 57, 83 verso and 84 (D05577–D05579, D05581, D05615, D05616), and possibly others. As Nicholson observes, it is the ‘only one that [Turner] sketched out to any degree’ as well as being the most commonly represented by artists. This subject comes from Book 1 of the Metamorphoses. At centre left there is the hint of a cow, representing Io, who has been changed into a heifer and haunts the riverside, while in the shade on her right reclines her guardian, the hundred-eyed Argus. Io will eventually resume human form after being freed by Mercury, who murders Argus after lulling him to sleep with the story of Pan and Syrinx, the subject of folio 55. Turner painted a differently composed Mercury and Argus for the Royal Academy in 1836 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).1 This sketch shows that he had the subject in mind for many years.
Turner’s readings and representations from Ovid, focusing on the passions and pitfalls of love, are discussed at length by Nicholson,2 who describes their first appearance in this sketchbook as ‘tentative’ but nevertheless revealing ‘an inventive search for narrative material that contrasts with his study of ancient history’ and providing ‘contrasts of emotion ranging from rude comedy to excessive grief to unfulfilled desire’. The shady landscape here, with its winding stream, introduces the ‘enchanted world’ of the Metamorphoses.

David Blayney Brown
August 2007

Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.217–19 no.367 (pl.372).
Nicholson 1990, pp.144–218.

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