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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Rispah c.1807-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Rispah circa 1807–8
Vaughan Bequest CXVII U
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 181 x 253 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
?John Landseer
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer by 1872
Henry Vaughan by 1878, possibly acquired directly from Landseer before his death in 1873
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and Robert Dunkarton, ‘Rispah | 2nd,, Book of Samuel. Chap. 21.’, published Turner, 23 April 1812
Turner’s Liber Studiorum composition relates to the story of Rizpah [sic], as narrated in the Old Testament. King David delivered seven of his predecessor Saul’s family, including two sons by Rizpah, as reparation for Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites. They were
put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest. And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.1
At first sight, the composition relates very closely to Turner’s painting A Subject from the Runic Superstitions, apparently exhibited at his gallery in 1808 (Tate N00464);2 it seems to be the work described by the engraver and writer John Landseer in a contemporary review as ‘an unfinished picture ..., the subject of which is taken from the Runic superstitions, and where the artist has conjured up mysterious spectres and chimeras dire.’3 These appear against the dark bank on the right and to the lower left, and the veiled figure (with a second, shadowy figure behind her) points to or conjures the main group – rather holding a torch to ward off animals from the skeletal remains of her sons and the others introduced in the Liber design. It had previously been assumed that the present composition records an earlier state of the painting,4 but subsequent x-ray images have shown that the latter was not extensively reworked, and Gillian Forrester has suggested that Turner used the general arrangement of the painting as the basis for a new, unrelated subject.5
On a number of occasions, Ruskin used the composition as an example of one extreme of the range of emotions addressed in the Liber, and Turner’s wide sympathies.6 He saw it as a prime expression of sorrow, with Rizpah ‘desolate by her last sons slain, among the beasts of the field’7 and as a type of ‘human love’, ‘more than dead, beside her children.’8 Stopford Brooke admired the way ‘horror and maternal love are so woven together that the love purifies the horror and the horror dignifies the love. ... It was out of [Turner’s] power to make the figure of Rizpah beautiful with the beauty of great tragedy. But through simplicity and directness he has made her as weird as if her sorrow belonged to the childhood of the world.’ He observed that the ‘passion and horror’ were also expressed through the dark, moonlit landscape, with ‘the blacker pond, stagnating in its own darkness’. ‘And when we have seen it all, then the figure takes into itself nobility. ... like an Indian woman, – for the connection is savage, – amid the graveyard of her tribe; ... Like Agamemnon’s head when Iphigenia was slain, hers is veiled.’9 Brooke also noticed the similarity of the pose to that of one of the grieving women in the Tenth Plague of Egypt (for Liber drawing, see Tate D08162; Turner Bequest CXVIII H).
According to Forrester, the drawing was lent to the 1872 Burlington Fine Arts Club Liber exhibition by the artist Sir Edwin Landseer, son of the John Landseer cited above10 (although the catalogue only acknowledges Sir Edwin’s ownership rather than listing the work as an exhibit11), and she has also speculated, though with ‘no firm evidence’, that John Landseer himself could have owned the drawing previously.12
The composition is recorded, as ‘9[:] 3 Rispah’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12158; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)13 dated by Finberg and Forrester to before the middle of 1808.14 It also appears later in the sketchbook, as ‘Rispath’, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects (Tate D12170; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 30a).15
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Robert Dunkarton, bears the publication date 23 April 1812 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Rispah | 2nd,, Book of Samuel. Chap. 21.’ in part 9 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.42–46;16 see also Tate D08145–D08148; Turner Bequest CXVII Q, R, S, T). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (A01002) and the published engraving (Tate A01003). It is one of eight published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08106, D08120, D08139, D08144, D08162, D08166, D08169; CXVI E, CXVII P, CXVIII H, L, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVI S, CXVII L).
Thomas Lupton etched and engraved a facsimile of the print in 1858 as one of an unpublished series for the London dealer Colnaghi17 (see general Liber introduction).
The present work may have been owned by Turner’s neighbour, the engraver and writer John Landseer,18 and was in the possession of his son, the painter Sir Edwin Henry Landseer by 1872.19 Henry Vaughan owned it by 1878,20 possibly acquiring it directly from Edwin Landseer before his death in 1873.21
2 Samuel 21:9–11.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.60 no.79, pl.89; see also Andrew Wilton, in 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.130–1.
Quoted ibid.
Forrester 1996, p.107; see also p.108 note 1.
Letter to the Rev. H.G. Liddell, 12 October 1844, transcribed in Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.673; ibid., VI 1904, p.26; ibid., XII 1904, p.370; ‘Catalogue of the Rudimentary Series’ in Instructions in Practice of Elementary Drawing ..., in ibid., XXI 1906, p.224
Ibid., VII 1903, p.386.
Ibid., p.434.
Brooke 1885, pp.[155], 156, 157; Rawlinson 1878, pp.95–6.
Forrester 1996, p.108 note 5.
[Taylor and Vaughan] 1872, p.35.
Forrester 1996, p.107.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.86–96; 1906, pp.101–13; Finberg 1924, pp.165–84.
Ibid.: 1878, p.197; 1906, p.232; 1924, p.184.
Forrester 1996, p.107.
Taylor and Vaughan 1872, p.35.
Rawlinson 1878, p.95.
Forrester 1996, p.108 note 5.
Technical notes:
The sheet has been slightly flattened; the tree in the centre appears damaged, and may have suffered a spill of water as it lacks detail and blots are apparent. Heavy watercolour washes were applied over the brushwork to darken it. A softer technique than scratching-out with the usual needle was used to create lights in these dark washes; stopping-out was used for the moon and probably for its reflection in the right foreground, though there is some scratching-out for the brighter lights. The overall very dark brown colour results from the presence of burnt sienna and greenish ochre pigments.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘U’ centre, and ‘46’ bottom left
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVII – U’ bottom left
There are a few blots or splashes at the top left.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Rispah 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-rispah-r1131751, accessed 19 June 2024.