Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Fifth Plague of Egypt


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 180 × 253 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Turner Bequest CXVI S

Catalogue entry

Henry Vaughan by 1872
Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘The 5th Plague of Egypt the Picture late in the possession of W,, Beckford Esqr.’, published Charles Turner, 10 June 1808
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design follows his oil painting, The Fifth Plague of Egypt, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800, with a partial quotation of a verse from Exodus: ‘And Moses stretched forth his hands [sic: ‘rod’ in the King James Version] toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground.’1 It was his first major ‘history’ painting, and was bought by his wealthy patron William Beckford, though the lettering of the engraving acknowledged that it had already been disposed of by 1808 (at the Fonthill sale in August 1807); it is now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.2
There has been debate over which plague Turner intended to show.3 His title referred to the fifth plague,4 affecting Egyptian animals, but the quotation was from the episode of the seventh,5 of hail and fire: ‘for upon every man and beast which shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.’6 As a consequence ‘the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.’7
Turner may not have had access to the painting while making the present design, as none of the various elements corresponds precisely. Most notably, the brilliantly-lit single pyramid at the centre of the painting has been replaced by three – two lit up to the left, and one in darkness to the right. The horses and figures in the foreground have also been slightly rearranged; and the whirling masses of smoky cloud in the painting are here pierced by dramatic diagonal beams of light and bolts of lightning. Turner may have referred back to a drawing in the Dolbadarn sketchbook (Tate D02114; Turner Bequest XLVI 79), which appears to be a study for the figures, trees and horse(s), and a figure in the Studies for Pictures sketchbook (Tate D04016; Turner Bequest LXIX 22) which may be a study for Moses. In broader terms the composition drew on the classical landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Richard Wilson.8
Exodus 9:23; verse concludes: ‘and the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt.’
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.10–12 no.13, pl.10 (colour).
See: John Gage in Gage, Jerrold Ziff, Nicholas Alfrey and others, J.M.W. Turner, à l’occasion du cinquantième anniversaire du British Council, exhibition catalogue, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris 1983, p.63; Butlin and Joll 1984, p.11; Forrester 1996, p.63.
Exodus 9:1–7.
Exodus 9:13–35.
Exodus 9:19.
Exodus 9: 25.
Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 1980, p.[133]; Forrester 1996, p.63.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.240.
Brooke 1885, pp.[56]–7
Wilton 1980, pp.[133], 135; see also Forrester 1996, p.63.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.158 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.30–9; 1906, pp.37–48; Finberg 1924, pp.45–64.
See [J.E. Taylor and Henry Vaughan], Exhibition Illustrative of Turner’s Liber Studiorum, Containing Choice Impressions of the First States, Etchings, Touched Proofs, together with the Unpublished Plates, and a Few Original Drawings for the Work, exhibition catalogue, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London 1872, p.23.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

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