J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner A Hurricane in the Desert (The Simoom), for Rogers's 'Poems' c.1830-2

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
A Hurricane in the Desert (The Simoom), for Rogers’s ‘Poems’ circa 1830–2
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 195
Pencil, watercolour and pen and ink, approximately 120 x 128 mm on white wove paper, 242 x 317 mm
Inscribed by ?the artist/engraver in pencil ‘Tail Piece’ top centre and numbers ‘1’ through ‘11’ descending along left-hand edge of vignette and ‘1’ through ‘[12]’ along top edge of vignette
Stamped in black ‘CCLXXX 195’ bottom right-hand edge
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This vignette, The Simoom, was published in the 1834 edition of Rogers’s Poems, as an illustration to the poem ‘Human Life’.1 It was engraved by Edward Goodall,2 and published below the following verses:
At night, when all, assembling round the fire,
Closer and closer draw till they retire,
A tale is told of India or Japan,
Of merchants from Golcond or Astracan,
What time wild Nature revelled unrestrained,
And Sinbad voyaged and the Caliphs reigned:–
Of Knights renowned from holy Palestine,
And minstrels, such as swept the lyre divine,
Or some great Caravan, from well to well
Winding as darkness on the desert fell,
In their long march, such as the Prophet bids,
To Mecca from the Land of Pyramids,
And in an instant lost – a hollow wave
Of burning sand their everlasting grave!
(Poems, pp.93–4)
Turner highlighted the last couplet with a box drawn in pencil in the margin of his own copy of the 1827 edition of Poems (see Tate D36330; Turner Bequest CCCLXVI p.103). His subsequent design provides an evocative complement to the poet’s description of a desert caravan caught in a deadly sandstorm known as a Simoom. Beneath a sun ringed with a blood-red halo a scene of total destruction unfolds: in the middle distance a rider is about to be thrown from his horse whilst the corpses of men and beasts lie strewn in the about the foreground. The concept of the Simoom, known as the ‘poison wind’, might have been familiar to many of Rogers’s readers; in his Turkish tale, The Giaour (1813), Lord Byron defined it as ‘the blast of the desert, fatal to every living thing, and often alluded to in eastern poetry’.3 It is also memorably portrayed by the Greek historian, Herodotus. Furthermore, as Adele Holcomb has discussed, Turner’s scene recalls the work of another poet he greatly admired, the Scottish writer, James Thomson (1700–48).4 In the section entitled ‘Summer’ Thomson’s pastoral epic The Seasons (1726–30) contains a vivid description of a desert storm:
From all the boundless furnace of the sky,
And the wide glittering waste of burning sand,
A suffocating wind the pilgrim smites
With instant death. Patient of thirst and toil,
Son of the desert! even the camel feels,
Shot through his withered heart, the fiery blast.
Or from the black-red ether, bursting broad,
Sallies the sudden whirlwind. Straight the sands,
Commoved around, in gathering eddies play;
Nearer and nearer till they darkening come;
Till, with the general all-involving storm
Swept up, the whole continuous wilds arise
Beneath descending hills the caravan
Is buried deep.
(‘Summer’ lines 692–73, 976–7)
Turner was very familiar with Thomson’s poetry and had paid homage to him in an oil painting of 1809, Thomson’s Aeolian Harp (Manchester City Art Gallery).5 His own attempts at verse are close in style to that of The Seasons.6 Details in The Simoom such as the camels and the ‘black-red’ colouring of the sky appear to draw directly upon Thompson’s verses, whilst the concept of the ‘all-involving’ storm is broadly illustrated by the whirling vortex of the landscape. As Holcomb says ‘It is the idea of a total unleashing of natural furies that underlies the pictorial subordination of detail to the form of a revolving vacuum’.7
Holcomb has also demonstrated that Turner’s design was made more dramatic in the engraved version, by centralizing the vortical scheme and strengthening the left-hand side of the composition.8 The plate was also made more dynamic by the inclusion of diagonal lines across the surface evoking more of a sense of suffocating, swirling sand. Turner was attracted to the theme of man at the mercy of natural forces throughout his life, for example in his oil paintings, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 (Tate N00490),9 and Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 (Tate N00531).10
There are two studies for this vignette (see Tate D27578; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 61 and Tate D27582; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 65).
Samuel Rogers, Poems, London 1834, p.94.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.385. There are no impressions of this engraving in Tate’s collection.
Quoted in Piggott 1993, p.84.
Quoted in Holcomb 1970, p.25.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.86.
See Andrew Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.53–61
Ibid., p.25.
Ibid., p.24.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.126
Ibid., no.404; see also Wilton 1975, p.68.
Inscribed by unknown hands in pencil ‘20’ top centre and ‘28 | a’ centre and ‘CCLXXX 195’ bottom centre. Also in red ink ‘1025’ bottom left
Stamped in black ‘CCLXXX 195’ centre

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

Revised by Nicola Moorby
July 2008

How to cite

Meredith Gamer, ‘A Hurricane in the Desert (The Simoom), for Rogers’s ‘Poems’ c.1830–2 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2006, revised by Nicola Moorby, July 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-hurricane-in-the-desert-the-simoom-for-rogerss-poems-r1133352, accessed 10 December 2018.