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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Aesacus and Hesperie c.1817-18

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Aesacus and Hesperie circa 1817–18
Turner Bequest CXVIII L
Etching printed in brown ink with brown watercolour additions on off-white wove paper, 180 x 257 mm, trimmed to etched border of image
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by Turner, ‘Æsacus and Hesperie | Vide Ovid Mets. Book XI.’, published Turner, 1 January 1819 (see main catalogue entry)
As noted in the lettering of Turner’s Liber Studiorum print as published, the story of Aesacus and Hesperie is related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a source of several designs based on stories of love and/or transformation: the others are Cephalus and Procris and Glaucus and Scylla (see Tate D08144, D08170; Turner Bequest CXVII P, CXVIII P), and Appulia in Search of Apullus, Pan and Syrinx and Narcissus and Echo.1
The present composition is Turner’s only known treatment of the episode: Aesacus sees Hesperie drying her hair by the river; she subsequently flees at his approach and is fatally bitten by a snake, whereupon Aesacus tries to commit suicide by jumping from a sea cliff but is transformed into a diving bird.2 There are two pencil and ink studies of Hesperie (with her head turned away) in the Aesacus and Hesperie sketchbook (Tate D40932; Turner Bequest CLXIX, inside front cover), which comprises paper watermarked 1817.3 Aesacus’s pose is perhaps an unconscious echo of Jason’s as he stalks the dragon in Turner’s earlier Liber composition (see Tate D08106; Turner Bequest CXVI E). No freehand study for the whole composition is known, the present work being an impression of Turner’s etched outline, with the tones indicated in watercolour (see technical notes below); Rawlinson did not mention this sheet in the first edition of his Liber catalogue, noting instead ‘an Etching slightly washed-in in sepia, but hardly sufficient, I think, to have been of use as a guide for mezzotinting’ in a private collection.4
Stopford Brooke thought the design ‘of all the Liber Studiorum, the most romantic, and perhaps the most beautiful. ... The scenery is that of the English woodland and river, and the figures come forth from Turner’s unschooled and childlike imagination. ... By force of their childlikeness they realize the childhood of the world.’5 In this he partly followed Ruskin, who had detected the way ‘English willows by the brooks, and English forest glades, mingle even with the heroic foliage’.6 Ruskin also used the composition as a prime example of Turner’s tree drawing: ‘Of the arrangement of the upper boughs, the Æsacus and Hesperie is perhaps the most consummate example; the absolute truth and simplicity, and the freedom from everything like fantasticism or animal form, being as marked on the one hand, as the exquisite imaginitiveness of the lines on the other.’7
He later returned to this theme:
Again, it is impossible to tell whether the two nearest trunks in the Æsacus and Hesperie of the Liber Studiorum, especially the large one on the right with the ivy, have been invented, or taken straight from nature; they have all the look of accurate portraiture. I can hardly imagine anything so perfect to have been obtained from the real thing; but we know that the imagination must have begun to operate somewhere, we cannot tell where, since the multitudinous harmonies of the rest of the picture could hardly in any real scene have continued so inviolately sweet.8
Elsewhere, he reproduced details of the foliage from an impression of the etching.9 He also mentioned the subject as one of the Liber’s tragic treatments of ‘human love ... Hesperie, [dying] by the viper’s fang’; 10 this and Procris and Cephalus (for Liber drawing see Tate D08144; Turner Bequest CXVII P) were
two of Turner’s most beautiful classical landscapes. ... In the purist landscape, the human subject is the immortality of the soul by the faithfulness of love: in both the Turner subjects it is the death of the body by the impatience and error of love. ... In both these high mythical subjects the surrounding nature, though suffering, is still dignified and beautiful. Every line in which the master traces it, even where seemingly negligent, is lovely and set down with a meditative calmness which make these two etchings capable of being placed beside the most tranquil work of Holbein or Dürer.’11
The composition is recorded, as ‘[?Esacus and Hesperie]’, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12171; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 31); these notes (Tate D12160–D12171; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 25a–31) were probably made between 1808 and as late as 1818.12 It is also apparently noted, though as ‘Eacus and Hippolita H’ (probably inadvertently, Aeacus and Hippolyta being unrelated mythological characters), with various other Liber subjects inside the back cover of the Liber Notes (1) sketchbook (Tate D40871; Turner Bequest CXLIII); Gillian Forrester dates Turner’s list to 1815, as two of the subjects were printed by the beginning of 1816.13 It appears, as ‘Aesacus ... 13’, in a list (now rubbed and difficult to decipher) of Liber works in progress around 1817–18 inside the back cover of the Aesacus and Hesperie sketchbook (Tate D40933; Turner Bequest CLXIX).14
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, by Turner alone, bears the publication date 1 January 1819 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Æsacus and Hesperie | Vide Ovid Mets. Book XI.’ in part 13 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.62–66;15 see also Tate D08163–D08165; Turner Bequest CXVIII J, K, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII I). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A01138) and the published engraving (A01139). It is one of eight published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08106, D08120, D08139, D08144, D08149, D08162, D08169; Turner Bequest CXVI E, CXVII L, P, CXVIII H, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S, CXVII U).
As Ian Warrell has suggested, Turner may have recalled the sequestered and erotic classical mood of the scene in a study among the 1827 Petworth drawings (Tate D22720; Turner Bequest CCXLIV 58).16 In 1896, Frank Short etched and mezzotinted the present composition,17 as one of his interpretations of the published Liber plates (Tate T05058; 18 see general Liber introduction).
Respectively: W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, Turner’s Liber Studiorum, A Description and a Catalogue, London 1878, pp.144–5 no.72, 158 no.80, 168 no.90; Rawlinson 1906, pp.169–70 no.72, 183 no.80, 195 no.90; Finberg 1924, pp.287–90 no.72, 319–21 no.80, 359–61 no.90.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI. 749–95 (particularly 764–70).
Finberg 1909, I, p.488.
Rawlinson 1878, p.132.
Brooke 1885, pp.225, 226.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.236.
Ibid., p.586.
Ibid., IV 1903, p.248
The Elements of Drawing, in ibid., Volume XV: The Elements of Drawing; The Elements of Perspective; and The Laws of Fésole, London 1904, p.121 fig.26
Ibid., VII 1903, p.434.
Lectures on Landscape, in ibid., XXII 1906, pp.65, 67
Forrester 1996, pp.161–3 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.160 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.163 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.126–34; 1906, pp.148–58; Finberg 1924, pp.245–64.
Forrester 1996, p.128 note 4.
Martin Hardie, The Liber Studiorum Mezzotints of Sir Frank Short, R.A., P.R.E. after J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Catalogue & Introduction, London 1938, p.54 no.17, reproduced p.[85] pl.III.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986 – 88, London 1996, p.73.
Technical notes:
Contrary to other instances where Turner used a proof of his printed outline as a framework for subsequent watercolour applied to guide his mezzotint engravers (for example Tate D08105, D08110; Turner Bequest CXVI D, I), close technical examination has shown that here the etching was, uniquely, printed over the washes, with slight misregistration – for unknown but perhaps experimental reasons.1 Further washing and scratching-out then took place; the latter technique is used very precisely in the foliage. The ink has been badly compressed during storage, broadening the finer lines until they could be mistaken for watercolour; the overall warm brown colour results from the burnt sienna pigment of the watercolour work.2
Forrester 1996, p.128, reporting Joyce Townsend’s findings.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in blue pencil ‘197’ top right
Inscribed in pencil upside down ‘Aesacus and Hesperie | Etching’ top centre, and ‘66 | L’ centre right
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVIII – L’ bottom left
The sheet is abraded where it was formerly stuck down.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Aesacus and Hesperie c.1817–18 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 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-aesacus-and-hesperie-r1131769, accessed 20 June 2024.