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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Erotic Figure Studies: ?A Nymph and Satyr c.1805-15

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Erotic Figure Studies: ?A Nymph and Satyr c.1805–15
Turner Bequest CCCLXV A
Pencil and ink on white wove paper, 274 x 375 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The main drawing is the most developed of Turner’s erotic subjects, and one of ‘very few pieces ... to exist outside the protective covers of a sketchbook’, as Ian Warrell has noted.1 He observes that it is difficult to compare with anything else in the Turner Bequest, and ‘cannot automatically be assumed’ to be by Turner,2 although it can be likened to the ‘Old Master’-like chalk and ink drawings on the blue paper of the Calais Pier sketchbook, used to work out compositions for paintings around the turn of the century (Tate; Turner Bequest LXXXI);3 see Andrew Wilton’s ‘History Painting c.1799–1807’ section in the present catalogue. Former Tate registrar and Turner scholar Andrew Loukes suggested Charles Reuben Ryley (c.1752–1798), examples of whose work Turner owned, as an alternative artist; the possible identity of the male figure here as a satyr ‘with pointed ears and stumpy tail’ might link it to Ryley’s work on classical subjects.4
Nevertheless, the present drawing is not inherently unlikely to be by Turner, and Warrell has noted the woman’s ‘long limbs’ typical of Turner’s paintings, and the similar ‘broad male back’5 of Mercury in the 1811 painting Mercury and Herse (private collection).6 Compare the nymphs and satyrs of about 1810 in Turner’s Academy Auditing sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CCX a); the Liber Studiorum includes several classical love stories designed in line and brown wash (see for example Tate D08144, D08166 and D08170; Turner Bequest CXVII P, CXVIII L, P), and were a possible ‘trigger for the more explicit incidents depicted here’,7 as Warrell has observed. See also Venus and Adonis, a painting of about 1803–5 (private collection)8 where the goddess’s body lies exposed but both protagonists’ features are hidden as they face each other.9 The subsidiary drawing, focusing on the genitals among a dynamic mass of flailing limbs, is comparable for instance to Tate D08342 (Turner Bequest CXXII 37) in the Finance sketchbook and Tate D27447 (Turner Bequest CCLXXIX a 45a) in the later Life Class (1) book.10
Whether by accident or design, this sheet is not listed in Finberg’s 1909 Inventory of the Turner Bequest,11 the only erotic subject to be omitted of those surviving in the collection.12 In the 1970s13 it was assigned the addendum number CCCLXV A, arbitrarily placing it right at the end of Finberg’s main sequence after a section of ‘Miscellaneous: Colour’ sheets14 with which it is unconnected. There are undated manuscript notes in a copy extensively annotated by the Turner scholar C.F. Bell, although not in his characteristic neat hand: ‘Add. CCCLXV, A. | 1. Indecent subject 10 5/8 x 14 ¾ | Two drawings on one sheet. Pen & brown ink & wash, over slight blue chalk, Sheepshanks Cabinet.’15 In another copy, likely in the same hand, is the variation: ‘Add. CCCLXV.A, | One sheet. Recto. 2 Drawings (Erotic) | V. Poor Condition.’16
The Sheepshanks Cabinet is in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, London, where the Turner Bequest was transferred after the 1928 Tate Gallery flood until the opening of the Clore Gallery at what is now Tate Britain in 1987; it was used to house the department’s ‘pornographic material’.17 Warrell noted that the present sheet was apparently seen by the biographer Bernard Falk in the 1930s;18 in relation to Turner’s supposedly destroyed ‘pornographic’ drawings, Falk simply mentions examining ‘the one that has survived’, describing such works as ‘the loose fancies of a mind stored with concupiscent memories – recurrent echoes of vivid youthful escapades’.19
In 2006, as one of the participants in Tate Britain’s Drawing from Turner project and exhibition, the sculptor Bill Woodrow (born 1948) made and exhibited an interpretation of this subject, its lines ‘drawn’ by tearing the sheet. Paul Day, a final year BA student in painting at Chelsea College of Art, made a drawing which was not exhibited.
The verso is D40021 (Turner Bequest CCCLXV Av), where there is a somewhat less refined erotic study.
Warrell 2003, p.18.
Ibid., p.19.
See Wilton 1987, p.84, Chumbley and Warrell 1989, p.28, and Upstone 2001, p.152.
Warrell 2003, p.19, citing as an example a subject from a ‘Sketchbook of historical subjects’ reproduced in David Blayney Brown and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Turner’s House, Gallery and Library, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2001, fig.13 (colour); see also Upstone 2001, p.152, and Shanes 2016, pp.484–5 note 7.
Warrell 2003, p.19.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.80–2 no.114, pl.122 (colour).
Warrell 2012, p.78.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.113–15 no.150, pl.49 (colour).
See also Wilton 1987, p.84, Wilton 2006, p.85, and Warrell 2012, p.78.
See Warrell 2003, p.19 for these and other examples.
A.J. Finberg, A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest, London 1909.
See Warrell 2003, p.12.
Ibid., p.19, and Warrell 2012, p.78.
Finberg 1909, II, pp.1211–14, CCCLXV 1–38.
MS pencil notes in copy of Finberg 1909 used mainly by C.F. Bell (died 1966), Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1214.
MS pencil notes in copy of Finberg 1909 formerly in curatorial use at the British Museum, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1214.
Antony Griffiths and Reginald Williams, The Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: User’s Guide, London 1987, p.162; see also Warrell 2003, p.19.
Warrell 2003, p.19.
Falk 1938, p.121.
Technical notes:
The sheet was once heavily folded into quarters, and again into eights, though whether by Turner or National Gallery officials is unknown.1

Matthew Imms
September 2016

See Warrell 2003, pp.18–19.

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Erotic Figure Studies: ?A Nymph and Satyr c.1805–15 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, September 2016, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, February 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-erotic-figure-studies-a-nymph-and-satyr-r1184396, accessed 13 November 2019.