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: 436 × 271 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXXI 63

Catalogue entry

Inverted relative to the sketchbook’s foliation, like the study on folio 31 verso (D04962; Turner Bequest LXXXI 60) this drawing is related to the painting of the Holy Family exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 (Tate N00473)1 which, despite the virtual elimination of the pyramid (except ambiguously in the background), is iconographically a ‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’. Here, the pyramid plays a significant role, appearing immediately behind the family group and emphasizing their triangular outline.
In his treatment of the figures in the painting, Turner was evidently intent on imitating Titian (active about 1506–died 1576), but he must also have been conscious of a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), The Holy Family with the Infant St John (Tate A00837), which also shows the figures in a pyramidal group beneath trees, though with the additional figure of the infant John the Baptist. Turner’s reason for dispensing with the pyramid as an immediately recognizable feature may have been that he had used one prominently in his painting of The Fifth Plague of Egypt (Indianapolis Museum of Art),2 shown at the Royal Academy in 1800.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.38–9 no.49, pl.60.
Ibid., pp.10–11 no.13, pl.10 (colour).
Technical notes:
The page is oil–stained in places.

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

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