Joseph Mallord William Turner

Study for the ‘Holy Family’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Chalk on paper
Support: 271 × 436 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXXI 60

Catalogue entry

Drawn with the page turned horizontally, this precise subject was not executed, but it is related to the canvas of the Holy Family, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 (Tate N00473);1 that painting takes the lower right–hand portion of this composition as its basis, omitting the group of putti at the left.
The further groups of cavorting cherubs on folio 32 recto (D04963; Turner Bequest LXXXI 61) may be read as a continuation of this composition, which evidently borrows its general layout from Titian’s Death of St Peter Martyr, that is to say, with tall trees arching over the main figure group, putti playing in their branches. Titian’s design had impressed Turner when he saw it in the Louvre during his Paris stay of 1802 (see the Studies in the Louvre sketchbook; Tate D04306–D04308; Turner Bequest LXXII 27a–28, 28a ), and he was undecided whether to utilise it for this or for the ‘Venus and Adonis’ subject he was also contemplating; see folios 25 verso, 26 verso and 27 verso (D04950, D04952, D04954; Turner Bequest LXXXI 48, 50, 52).
The group to the left of the Holy Family seems to consist of both putti and angels; the Family itself is also studied in a rough sketch on folio 17 verso (D04935; Turner Bequest LXXXI 34), which may be for this subject, or is possibly for an Adoration of the Shepherds. Another, perhaps more evolved study for the Holy Family painting is on folio 33 recto (D04965; Turner Bequest LXXXI 63). In both, the setting of a wooded landscape (here, with palm trees) and a pyramid makes it clear that Turner had in mind a ‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’, and the motif survived into the finished picture even though the upper half of the design with its tall trees was eliminated and the pyramid replaced by a rock arch, probably borrowed from a 1674 painting by Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), The Origin of Coral (Earl of Leicester Collection, Holkham Hall, Norfolk). Rock arches occur in other paintings by Claude, but this is the best–known and most likely to have been seen by Turner.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.38–9 no.49, pl.60.
Ibid., pp.243–4 no.394, pl.398 (colour).

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