Joseph Mallord William Turner

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


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 221 × 213 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 138

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 shares the same size, palette, and style as five other works in this group, suggesting that Turner produced them all at around the same time (see Tate D27647; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 130).
The subject of the work is 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 after converting to Christianity, is forced to stand 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 this 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.
The sketch depicts the grand architecture of the great hall, the throng of spectators at the trial and the pale crescent moon glimpsed in the sky in the background. The general composition remained essentially unchanged in Turner’s final version of the vignette, although he would later fill the scene with a greater variety of female spirits and ghoulish figures.
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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