Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Cave of Despair


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on mahogany
Support: 508 × 813 mm
frame: 608 × 908 × 70 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Catalogue entry

451. [N05522] The Cave of Despair, from Spenser's ‘Faery Queene’? c. 1835


Mahogany, 20 × 32 (51 × 81)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (159, 1 unidentified 2'8 1/2" × 1'8 1/2"; identified 1946 by chalk number on back); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1947.

Lit. Davies 1946, pp. 165, 188; Gage 1968, p. 681, repr. p. 676, fig. 48.

Martin Davies catalogued this picture as ‘A Visit to the Underworld (?)’, old Tate Gallery catalogues as ‘Unidentified Subject’, and Lawrence Gowing as ‘An Allegory of Time’ on account of the hour-glass held by the child-like figure in the centre. More recently, however, John Gage has identified the subject as an illustration to Spenser's Faery Queene. Charles Eastlake was painting an illustration to the same poem for Sir John Soane while Turner was with him in Rome in 1828–9 (repr. Gage, op. cit., fig. 47), and in a letter to Eastlake of 11 August 1829 Turner writes that he would have liked to have bought Benjamin West's Cave of Despair, sold with the contents of West's studio in May of that year, ‘and lament I did not’ (repr. Gage, op. cit., fig. 49). According to Gage, Turner, rather than illustrate any one passage, conflates elements from Cantos VIII and IX: Despair, seen in a cave inhabited by an owl, as in Canto IX, is urging the Red Cross Knight to kill himself with a dagger, partly because he has deserted Una and transferred his allegiance to the witch Duessa, whom Una is shown revealing in the right foreground as a ‘loathly, wrinckeled hag’, an incident which takes place in a different cave in Canto VIII; the hour-glasses illustrate the lines in Canto XI, verse 46, when Despair tries to persuade the Knight that it is ‘better to die willinglie, Then linger till the glas be all out-ronne’. Turner had already illustrated Spenser in one of the Liber Studiorum plates, R. 36, ‘From Spenser's Fairy Queen’, published in June 1811 (repr. Finberg 1924, p. 143; see also No. 439 [N00561]). However, the central figure identified by Gage as the Red Cross Knight is remarkably difficult to make out.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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