Joseph Mallord William Turner

Vignette Study for Moore’s ‘The Epicurean’; Memphis (The Kingdom of the Earth)


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 378 × 302 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 134

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 D27647; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 130).
The numerous buildings, pyramids and figures dotting this small composition identify the subject as the great Egyptian city of Alexandria, which Moore describes in his fantastical prose tale, The Epicurean, during a great festival celebrating the moon:
The city of Memphis,– still grand, though no longer the unrivalled Memphis, that had borne away from Thebes the crown of supremacy, and worn it undisputed through the ages,– now, softened by the mild moonlight that harmonized with her decline, shone forth among her lakes, the pyramids, her shrines, like a dream of human glory that must ere long pass away. Even already ruin was visible around her. The sands of the Libyan desert were gaining upon her like a sea; and among solitary columns and sphinxes, already half sunk from sight, Time seemed to stand waiting till all that now flourished around him should fall beneath his desolating hand, like the rest. On the waters all was life and gaiety. As far as eye could reach, the lights of innumerable boats were seen studding, like rubies, the surface of the stream.
(Thomas Moore, The Epicurean, 1839, pp.30–1)
Jan Piggott has also linked the scene to part of Moore’s accompanying poem, Alciphron:
While far as sight can reach, beneath as clear
And blue a heav’n as ever bless’d our sphere,
Gardens, and pillar’d streets, and porphyry domes,
And high-built temples, fit to be the homes
Of mighty Gods, and pyramids, whose hour
Outlasts all time, above the waters tower!
(Thomas Moore, Alciphron, 1839, p.13)
The hazy pink and blue palette of the vignette, as well as the abundance of drawn figures, seem designed to evoke the idea of the city rather than set down a design that would be easily translated into engraved form. Like many of Turner’s studies for The Epicurean, this subject was never developed into a finished illustration.
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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