Joseph Mallord William Turner

Vignette Study for Moore’s ‘The Epicurean’; Descent into the Well


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

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Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 370 × 292 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 129

Catalogue entry

This sketch belongs to a large group of studies in the Turner Bequest, all of which relate to Turner’s vignettes for John Macrone’s 1839 edition of Thomas Moore’s The Epicurean, a Tale: and Alciphron, a Poem. Unlike most of the works in this group, however, this delicate watercolour appears to be a finished illustration that was not ultimately selected to be engraved or published. The subject shows the hero, Alciphron’s descent into a dangerous well located somewhere beneath the Egyptian pyramids:
Arrived at the end of this gallery, I found my hopes, for the second time, vanish; as the path, it was plain, extended no further. The only object I could discern, by the glimmering of my lamp, which now, every minute, burned fainter and fainter, was the mouth of a huge well that lay gaping before me – a reservoir of darkness, black and unfathomable ... After a more attentive scrutiny, however, I observed, at the depth of a few feet, a sort of iron step, projecting dimly from the side, and, below it, another, which, though hardly perceptible, was just sufficient to encourage an adventurous foot to the trial ... Placing my lamp, therefore (which was hollowed at the bottom, so as to fit like a helmet) firmly upon my head, and having thus both hands at liberty for exertion, I set my foot cautiously on the iron step, and descended into the well. I found the same footing, at regular intervals, to a considerable depth ... when the ladder altogether ceased, and I could descend no further. In vain did I stretch down my foot in search of support – the hard slippery sides were all that it encountered.
(Thomas Moore, The Epicurean, 1839, pp.49–50)
Turner shows Alciphron with his torch set firmly on his head, climbing gingerly down the side of the well, with one leg reaching down, in vain, for the next iron step. From the dank depths beneath, ghoulish skeletons and goblins swarm and clamour around him.
This is one of two finished studies relating to The Epicurean that have remained in the Turner Bequest, presumably because they were never selected for publication. The other finished subject shows Alciphron’s sleeping (see Tate D27645; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 128). The extent to which these watercolours differ from Turner’s more preliminary and experimental sketches can be gauged by comparing the completed Descent into the Well with a preparatory study for the subject (see Tate D27641; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 124).
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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