Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for ‘The Chaplet’ for Moore’s ‘The Epicurean’


In Tate Britain

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Crayon, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 379 × 292 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 127

Catalogue entry

This sketch belongs to a large group of preliminary studies which relate to Turner’s vignette illustrations for John Macrone’s 1839 edition of Thomas Moore’s The Epicurean, a Tale: and Alciphron, a Poem. The study resembles the style and dimensions of another work in this group (see Tate D27648; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 131) suggesting that Turner produced them at around the same time.
Jan Piggott has identified the subject as an experimental design for The Chaplet, circa 1838 (untraced),1 one of four vignettes that Turner produced for Moore’s fantastical prose tale The Epicurean.2 The finished watercolour, engraved for publication by Edward Goodall, depicts the trial of Alethe, a former pagan priestess who converts to Christianity, standing trial for heresy.3
Although her sentencing is delayed another day, the evil Orcus insists that she wear a coral chaplet that he has secretly poisoned:
The implacable Orcus, however, would not hear of mercy ... It was but by the firm intervention of the Governor, who shared the general sympathy in her fate, that the delay of another day was granted to give a chance to the young maiden of yet recalling her confession, and thus affording some pretext for saving her. Even in yielding, with evident reluctance, to this respite, the inhuman Priest would yet accompany it with some mark of his vengeance. Whether for the pleasure (observed the Tribune) of mingling mockery with his cruelty, or as a warning to her of the doom she must ultimately expect, he gave orders that there should be tied round her brow one of those chaplets of coral, with which it is the custom of young Christian maidens to array themselves on the day of their martyrdom
(Thomas Moore, The Epicurean, 1839, pp.205–6)
Despite his efforts, Alciphron is unable to remove the deadly band, and Alethe dies in his arms.
This sketch has been primarily executed in pencil with faint touches of watercolour wash. Although it is difficult to discern the exact subject, Turner is probably picturing the moment of Alethe’s sentencing. Several details correspond to the final illustration. The artist has indicated a high chamber with elaborate architectural features. Numerous figures crowd the bottom right-hand corner, whilst the scene is surveyed from above by winged angels bearing a cross. The central background is dominated by statues of a giant caryatid and a monstrous, bestial figure, probably the Egyptian god, Anubis, which in the finished version are pushed to the left-hand side of the composition.
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p.456, no.1301.
Piggott 1993, p.96; Thomas Moore, The Epicurean, a Tale: and Alciphron, a Poem, London 1839, reproduced between pp.206–7.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.637. There is one impression in Tate’s collection (T06625).
Bower 1999, pp.120–1; for a general technical discussion of nineteenth-century boards see ibid., pp.114–17.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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