Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for ‘Ploughing, Eton’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 230 × 344 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXV 47

Display caption

At a time of war, ploughing had a powerful patriotic symbolism. The image of the plough is also part of biblical symbolism. Its function is implicit in St John’s vision of what he called ‘a new earth’ which came at the Last Judgement.

Turner probably drew this scene in the aftermath of Waterloo, the battle that finally rid Europe of Napoleon. Turner once said ‘the soil is British & so shall be the harvest’.  His sentiment is close to Blake’s thoughts in Jerusalem, though Blake’s words possess the energy of the prophetic visionary. This made Blake very different to his fellow artists.

Gallery label, December 2004

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Catalogue entry

(see main catalogue entry)
The present drawing has generally been known as Ploughing at Eton by association with the unpublished Liber Studiorum engraving derived from it, the background of which was radically altered at the etching stage to show Eton College Chapel; here, Turner instead depicts a rambling, ecclesiastical building which Finberg proposed as Lincoln Cathedral.1
Gillian Forrester has more convincingly suggested that the building may be intended as York Minster, which Turner had first visited in 1797 and sketched again in the 1810s. The profile, with its three towers and a steep triangular roof, possibly intended as the chapter house, in between, is close to the summary silhouette in a the watercolour Early Morning on the River Ouse, with a Distant View of York Minster (private collection), dated variously to about 1800 or 1815 (the latter date informing Forrester’s, of circa 1815–16),2 but most recently linked to Turner’s Autumn 1817 visit to Durham and Northumberland and compared to the watercolours derived at that time from his recent trip along the Rhine.3 There are rapid studies of York in the Itinerary Rhine Tour sketchbook, which Turner still had with him in Durham (Tate D12595, D12596, D12603, D12605, D12633; CLIX 45a–46, 49a, 50a, 65a).
The composition is recorded, as ‘Ploughing’, in a list of published and unpublished ‘Pastoral’ subjects in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12160; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 25a); these notes (D12160–D12171; CLIV (a) 25a–31) were apparently made between 1808 and as late as 1818.4 A date of circa 1817–18 is therefore suggested for the present work, on the assumption of a connection with the 1817 York visit, although the Studies for Liber sketchbook may have been in use from 1807 onwards and an earlier date is therefore quite possible.
The design was engraved in reverse, and with considerable alterations in most points except the basic configuration of the figures and plough. While Turner kept the present rough drawing, a proof of his etching worked over in watercolour is assumed to have remained with the Liber engraver Thomas Lupton – who went on to work on two further variant plates – and eventually came into the collection at Tate (D08174; Vaughan Bequest CXVIII T); see the full catalogue entry for the latter for further discussion of the development of the composition and its complex engraving history.
Finberg 1924, p.317.
Forrester 1996, p.143 and note 5.
Watercolours & Drawings: Agnew’s 131st Annual Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Thos. Agnew & Sons, London 2004, p.[40] no.41, reproduced p.[41] (colour); Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.330 no.275, reproduced, as circa 1800.
Forrester 1996, pp.161–3.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Finberg 1909, I, p.315.

Matthew Imms
May 2006

Read full Catalogue entry

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