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 nine other works in this group, suggesting that Turner produced them all at around the same time (see Tate D27630; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 113).
Jan Piggott has identified the work as an experimental study for The Ring, circa 1838 (untraced),1 one of four vignettes that Turner produced for Moore’s fantastical prose tale The Epicurean.2 The finished watercolour was engraved by Edward Goodall.3 Turner illustrates the moment when Alciphron, in the midst of exploring a treacherous Egyptian pyramid, grabs hold of a magical ring that eventually guides him to safety. The hero is mounting a staircase when the steps begin to crumble beneath his feet:
I could hear the plash of the falling fragments, as every step in succession gave way from under my feet. It was a most trying moment, – but even still worse remained. I now found the balustrade, by which I had held during my ascent, and which had hitherto seemed firm, grow tremulous in my hand, – while the step, to which I was about to trust myself, tottered under my foot. Just then, a momentary flash, as if of lightning, broke around me, and I perceived, hanging out of the clouds, and barely within my reach, a huge brazen ring. Instinctively I stretched forth my arm to seize it, and, at the same instant, both balustrade and steps gave way beneath me, and I was left swinging by my hands in the dark void.
(The Epicurean, 1839, p.58)
(The Epicurean, 1839, p.58)
In the background, a pale crescent moon is visible amidst a blue sky. In contrast to Turner’s final illustration, which presents a frontal view of the hero dangling in space, this study shows the blue figure of Alciphron in profile, his back and legs elegantly arched upward. Another study in the Bequest shows him in a similar position, with the giant ring and crumbling balustrade more clearly delineated (see Tate D27640; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 123). Although these changes attest to Turner’s careful development of this composition, some critics consider The Ring to be one of his least successful vignette designs. In his biography of the artist, P.G. Hamerton declared that ‘The Ring may be dismissed at once as a wild fancy of a man swinging in the void, surrounded by diabolical apparitions, a subject authorised by the story, but not well chosen for illustration’.4
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p.456, no.1299.
Piggott 1993, p.96; Thomas Moore, The Epicurean, a Tale: and Alciphron, a Poem, London 1839, reproduced between pp.58–9.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.635. There is one impression in Tate’s collection (T06623).
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., London 1879, p.280.