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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Study for a Classical Subject: ?Mercury and Herse c.1812-13

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 20 Verso:
Study for a Classical Subject: ?Mercury and Herse c.1812–13
Turner Bequest CXXIX 20a
Pen and ink on white wove paper, 178 x 110 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This is the first of a series of twenty-five studies for upright classical compositions, continuing to folio 52 of this sketchbook (D09129). Upright compositions are relatively uncommon in Turner’s work, but he exhibited two, Mercury and Herse (on the London art market in 2005)1 in 1811 and Crossing the Brook (Tate N00497)2 in 1815. Despite Finberg’s suggestion and further comment by Kathleen Nicholson3 any connection between the composition of Mercury and Herse and the present drawing is generic rather than specific and Butlin and Joll admit no more than a probability. In fact the sketch need not be a prelude to the painting at all, since it is instead derived from an earlier group of sketches in the Studies for Pictures: Isleworth sketchbook (beginning with Tate D05581; Turner Bequest XC 57). It seems more likely that the present sequence of sketches was instead inspired by the exhibition of Mercury and Herse and looks forward to a new upright picture. Folio 52 in the present sketchbook (D09129) for example, is close to the composition of Crossing the Brook.
The series deserves consideration for showing the lengths to which Turner is prepared to go in shifting around the building blocks of a composition. In some ways the process is analogous to the repetitions, movements and variations of phrases found in his attempts at poetry in this same sketchbook. It may be that the series was conducted as some sort of demonstration of his methods of composition. Gerald Wilkinson describes it as experimenting with ‘interchangeable units of a classical picture’ and judges it ‘an arid procedure’, but Turner was especially keen on displaying his powers of composition at this time through the Liber Studiorum, and this series is certainly an extreme demonstration of the degree of nuance that could be in play in the process.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.80–2 no.114, pl.122; Sotheby’s sale, London, 5 July 2005, lot 40.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.93–4 no.130, pl.123.
Nicholson 1990, p.215.
Technical notes:
Some of the pen and ink work from this subject is offset onto folio 21 recto (D09083) opposite.

David Hill
October 2008

How to cite

David Hill, ‘Study for a Classical Subject: ?Mercury and Herse c.1812–13 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, October 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, September 2014, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-study-for-a-classical-subject-mercury-and-herse-r1146804, accessed 21 June 2024.