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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Solitude ('The Reading Magdalene') c.1808

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Solitude (‘The Reading Magdalene’) circa 1808
Turner Bequest CXVIII A
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 185 x 260 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and William Say, untitled, published Turner, ?1 January 1816 although dated 12 May 1814
There are no direct studies known for Turner’s Liber Studiorum design. His only reference to the composition appears to read ‘Castle & Mn’ (see below). Gillian Forrester notes that Turner’s friend and patron Charles Stokes’s contemporary Liber inventory gives the title as ‘Magdalene Reading’, an apparent expansion of ‘Mn’.1 St Mary Magdalene does not appear elsewhere in Turner’s work; the published plate was untitled, and although the early published sources list it as ‘Solitude’,2 the 1872 Liber exhibition catalogue which codified most of the titles notes both alternatives.3 Forrester relays John Gage’s suggestion of a connection with Richard Wilson’s 1762 painting Solitude, showing monks or hermits in sequestered contemplation of a wooded landscape (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea);4 the composition had also been engraved in 1778. However, she acknowledges that there is ‘no evidence’ that Turner referred to his own composition by this title.5
Generic, non-scriptural depictions of the penitent Mary Magdalene (sometimes in the wilderness) including those by artists of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries such as Caravaggio, Guercino, Guido Reni and Simon Vouet, had traditionally included attributes such as a book or scroll, crown of thorns, crucifix, jar of ointment, mirror or skull, often with vanitas or memento mori connotations. In his Liber drawing, Turner shows the half-draped figure looking down at a roughly scratched-out book, with a jar and hourglass at her left elbow; in the published print, the figure looks ahead, the book is lost in shade, the jar moved and the hourglass gone. The figure appears to echo some of Turner’s small life studies in the Academies sketchbook (Tate D05197, D05227; Turner Bequest LXXXIV 26, 54).
The deer grazing undisturbed to the left emphasises the contemplative atmosphere. Stopford Brooke wondered about the significance of the various elements:
Imagination belongs to it, and the power of awakening imaginative curiosity. What is that castle by the sea, that sleeps in a mist of sunshine; who dwells in it, and looks forth from its ruined casements over this “fairy land forlorn”;6 this land where only one woman lies on the grass, attended by a feeding stag? ... If the woman is intended for the Magdalen, and if that is a skull which lies before her, then the introduction of the castle only makes the scene belong the more to that country of legendary fancy where Romance and Christianity walked in the Middle Ages hand in hand; ... a drawing which belongs not so much to Nature as to Dreamland.’7
The composition has affinities with Richard Earlom’s Liber Veritatis prints after Claude Lorrain (see general Liber introduction), nos.77 (Narcissus and Echo)8 and 162 (Landscape with Psyche and the Palace of Cupid, known as ‘The Enchanted Castle’).9 The former includes a near-nude, reclining figure at the lower left, the latter a draped, seated figure with her hand supporting her head. Claude’s paintings are both now in the National Gallery, London.
The composition is recorded, as ‘Say [?Castle] & Mn’, in a list of published and unpublished ‘EP’ subjects in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12162; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 26a).10
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Henry Dawe, bears the publication date 12 May 1814 and was issued to subscribers in part 11 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.52–56;11 see also Tate D08156, D08157; Turner Bequest CXVIII C, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII B); the other prints in this part are dated 1 January 1816. Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A01112) and the published engraving (A01113). It is one of eleven published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘EP’ category, likely to indicate ‘Elevated Pastoral’ (see general Liber introduction, and drawings Tate D08103, D08112, D08117, D08122, D08128, D08132, D08137, D08141, D08146, D08147, D08152, D08159, D08163, D08168; Turner Bequest CXVI B, K, P, U, CXVII A, E, J, N, R, S, X, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII E, I, N).
Towards the end of his career, Turner used the composition as the basis of one of a series of oil paintings reinterpreting the Liber, perhaps prompted by his limited reprinting of the engravings in 1845 (see general Liber introduction for details). The painting, Sunrise, a Castle on a Bay: ‘Solitude’, is in the Turner Bequest (Tate N01985);12 the foreground trees are less prominent in the dazzling light, and the figure is omitted.
Forrester 1996, p.114.
Burnet and Cunningham 1859, p.121 no.21; Thornbury 1862, II, p.388 no.2; Turner’s Liber Studiorum. Photographs from the Thirty Original Drawings, 1861, pl.[24].
[Taylor and Vaughan] 1872, p.37 no.53.
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.213 no.101, reproduced p.212.
Forrester 1996, p.114.
John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale.
Brooke 1885, pp.[177]–8.
Liber Veritatis; or a Collection of Prints after the Original Designs of Claude Le Lorrain ..., London 1777, vol.I, pl.77; from 1644 original drawing by Claude Lorrain (British Museum, London, 1957–12–14–83: Michael Kitson, Claude Lorrain: Liber Veritatis, London 1978, pp.99, 101, reproduced pl.77).
Liber Veritatis, vol.II, pl.162; from 1664 drawing (BM 1957–12–14–166: Kitson, pp.153–4, reproduced pl.162).
Forrester 1996, p.161.
Rawlinson 1878, pp.107–15; 1906, pp.125–36; Finberg 1924, pp.205–24.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.303 no.515, pl.517 (colour).
Technical notes:
The paper was wetted, and wet washes then applied to the foreground. Washing and brushwork were followed by delicate scratching-out in the foreground, particularly on the jar and hourglass. The wash was also worked with the fingers, prints being evident at the lower right. The overall technique is similar to that used for Scene in the Campagna, another Liber drawing of about the same date (Tate D08141; Turner Bequest CXVII N). The warm brown colour results from the use of a single burnt sienna pigment.1 There is some spattering in the sky (compare the Liber design for St Catherine’s Hill near Guildford: Tate D08137; Turner Bequest CXVII J).
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files, with slide of detail.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Solitude (‘The Reading Magdalene’) c.1808 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-solitude-the-reading-magdalene-r1131758, accessed 20 June 2024.