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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner From Spenser's Fairy Queen c.1807-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
From Spenser’s Fairy Queen circa 1807–8
Vaughan Bequest CXVII L
Pencil and watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 182 x 256 mm
Watermark ‘1794 | J Whatman
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Henry Vaughan, probably after 1878
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Thomas Hodgetts, ‘From Spenser’s Fairy Queen’, published Turner, [?1] June 1811
The Faerie Queene, first published in 1590 and 1596, was the major work of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (circa 1552–1599). Stopford Brooke suggested that, although there was no precise textual source for the action of the seated figure, Turner’s Liber Studiorum composition may have been inspired by the landscape imagery of the poem, describing the setting of the cave of Despair:1
Ere long they come, where that same wicked wight
His dwelling has, low in an hollow cave,
Farre underneath a craggie clift ypight,
Darke, dolefull, drearie, like a greedie grave,
That still for carrion carcases doth crave:
On top whereof aye dwelt the ghastly Owle,
Shrieking his balefull note, which ever drave
Farre from that haunt all other chearefull fowle;
And all about it wandring ghostes did waile and howle.
And all about old stockes and stubs of trees,
Whereon nor fruit, nor leafe was ever seene,
Did hang upon the ragged rocky knees;
On which had many wretches hanged beene,
Whose carcases were scattered on the greene,
And throwne about the cliffs.2
Brooke explored the landscape imagery at length, to demonstrate its appropriateness for the grim subject; he noted the tree on the right (the left as engraved), ‘whose sinuous strength is wrought out inch by inch by the artist, and whose top, in symbol of the horror and crying of Despair, ends like the open mouth of a dragon.’3 Similar observations have been made concerning the trees surrounding the monster’s lair in Jason (see entry on Liber drawing, Tate D08106; Turner Bequest CXVI E).
Gillian Forrester has also considered the episode as the basis for Turner’s treatment: the Redcrosse Knight (symbolic of St George, England’s patron saint)4 is abandoned and weakened at this stage, though later recovers sufficiently to kill a dragon. Forrester has speculated on a further level of meaning, ‘as an allegory of the condition of England during the wars with Napoleon’, the constant background to most of the period of the Liber’s production.5
The composition is recorded, as ‘5[:] 5 Spenser Fairy Queen’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12157; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)6 dated by Finberg and Forrester to before the middle of 1808.7 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Spenser Fairy Queen’, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects (Tate D12170; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 30a).8
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved (in reverse) by Thomas Hodgetts, bears the publication date June 1811 and was issued to subscribers as ‘From Spenser’s Fairy Queen’ in part 7 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.32–36;9 see also Tate D08136, D08137, D08138; Turner Bequest CXVII I, J, K). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00982) and the published engraving (A00983). It is one of eight published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08106, D08120, D08144, D08149, D08162, D08166, D08169; Turner Bequest CXVI E, CXVII P, CXVIII H, L, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S, CXVII U), albeit the only one which ‘refers directly to a British poet’.10
Turner appears to have returned to Spenser in an indistinct oil painting now known as The Cave of Despair, circa 1835 (Tate N05522),11 perhaps drawing on elements of the episode depicted in the Liber, and other aspects of the story. Butlin and Joll have suggested that the upright painting Mountain Glen, Perhaps with Diana and Actaeon, circa 1835–40 (Tate N00561),12 is related to the Liber composition, but close similarities are limited to the shapes of the two tree trunks (corresponding to those in the ‘reversed’ print, rather than the present Liber drawing), although the mountains framed between them in the painting are comparable in general formation to those beyond the chasm in the Liber design.
The present work was probably not acquired by Henry Vaughan until after 1878.13
Brooke 1885, pp.[116]–17.
Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, I. ix. verses 33 and 34.
Brooke 1885, pp.118–19.
See ‘The Redcrosse Knight’ in Margaret Drabble ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th ed., Oxford (1985) 1988, pp.814–15.
Forrester 1996, p.96.
Ibid., pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
W[illiam] G[eorge] Rawlinson, Turner’s Liber Studiorum, A Description and a Catalogue, London 1878, pp.69–76; 1906, pp.80–9; Finberg 1924, pp.125–44.
Forrester 1996, p.28.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.283 no.451, pl.452, as ‘The Cave of Despair, from Spenser’s “Faery Queene”?’.
Ibid., pp.277–8 no.439, pl.444.
Not listed among the Liber studies Vaughan then owned in Rawlinson 1878.
Technical notes:
The materials used for this design are very similar to those used for Procris and Cephalus, another Liber composition of around the same date (Tate D08144; Turner Bequest CXVII P); Forrester has suggested that they may have been intended as a pair.1 The paper was not washed initially. Pencil drawing, washes and curly brushstrokes of watercolour were used in turn, with more scratching-out than in the Procris. The overall very warm brown colour is due to a combination of Indian red and umber pigments.2
Forrester 1996, p.24 note 74.
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘CXVII L | Pl 36’ top left and ‘D.08139’ bottom left
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVII – L’ bottom left

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘From Spenser’s Fairy Queen c.1807–8 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-from-spensers-fairy-queen-r1131742, accessed 19 June 2024.