Joseph Mallord William Turner

Vignette Study for Moore’s ‘The Epicurean’; Alciphron and the Spectre


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 381 × 294 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 130

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 D27648–D27651, D27655; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 131–134, and 138).
Here, Turner is illustrating a critical moment in Moore’s fantastical tale, The Epicurean, when, following a great festival, the hero Alciphron is overcome by a melancholy awareness of his own mortality. Resting beneath a statue of Venus, he prays for eternal life and pleasure:
The moon was still up, the morning had not yet glimmered, and the calm glories of the night rested on all around. Unconscious whither my pathway led, I wandered along, till I, at length, found myself before that fair statue of Venus ... Leaning against the pedestal of the statue, I raised my eyes to the heaven, and fixing them sadly and intently on the ever-burning stars, as if I sought to read the mournful secret in their light, asked, wherefore was it that Man alone must fade and perish, while they, so much less wonderful, less godlike than he, thus live on in radiance unchangeable for ever!
(Thomas Moore, The Epicurean, 1839, p.10)
Alciphron falls into a deep slumber and is approached by the spirit of an ‘ancient and venerable’ man who instructs him to go to Egypt in order to find eternal life. The watercolour depicts the hero kneeling at the foot of the statue of Venus, the full moon hanging low behind him illuminating the pale shapes of the pyramids in the background. Behind him, the spectre emerges bearing a candle. Jan Piggott has also linked the image to part of Moore’s accompanying poem, Alciphron:1
Sleep came then o’er me, – and I seem’d
To be transported far away
To a bleak desert plain, where gleam’d
One single, melancholy ray,
Throughout that darkness dimly shed
From a small taper in the hand
Of one, who pale as are the dead,
Before me took his spectral stand
(Thomas Moore, Alciphron, 1839, p.7)
Piggott 1993, p.90.
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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