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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Fifth Plague of Egypt circa 1806-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Fifth Plague of Egypt circa 1806–7
Vaughan Bequest CXVI S
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 180 x 253 mm
Part watermark ‘J Whatman
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900
Henry Vaughan by 1872
Etching and mezzotint by J.M.W. Turner and Charles Turner, ‘The 5th Plague of Egypt the Picture late in the possession of W,, Beckford Esqr.’, published Charles Turner, 10 June 1808
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design follows his oil painting, The Fifth Plague of Egypt, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800, with a partial quotation of a verse from Exodus: ‘And Moses stretched forth his hands [sic: ‘rod’ in the King James Version] toward heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground.’1 It was his first major ‘history’ painting, and was bought by his wealthy patron William Beckford, though the lettering of the engraving acknowledged that it had already been disposed of by 1808 (at the Fonthill sale in August 1807); it is now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.2
There has been debate over which plague Turner intended to show.3 His title referred to the fifth plague,4 affecting Egyptian animals, but the quotation was from the episode of the seventh,5 of hail and fire: ‘for upon every man and beast which shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.’6 As a consequence ‘the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.’7
Turner may not have had access to the painting while making the present design, as none of the various elements corresponds precisely. Most notably, the brilliantly-lit single pyramid at the centre of the painting has been replaced by three – two lit up to the left, and one in darkness to the right. The horses and figures in the foreground have also been slightly rearranged; and the whirling masses of smoky cloud in the painting are here pierced by dramatic diagonal beams of light and bolts of lightning. Turner may have referred back to a drawing in the Dolbadarn sketchbook (Tate D02114; Turner Bequest XLVI 79), which appears to be a study for the figures, trees and horse(s), and a figure in the Studies for Pictures sketchbook (Tate D04016; Turner Bequest LXIX 22) which may be a study for Moses. In broader terms the composition drew on the classical landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Richard Wilson.8
Ruskin disliked the composition: ‘When local character of this classical kind is attempted, the painter is visibly cramped; awkward resemblances to Claude [Lorrain] testify the want of his usual powerful originality: ... the Fifth [Plague] is a total failure; the Pyramids look like brick-kilns, and the fire running along the ground like the burning of manure’.9 Stopford Brooke preferred the grandeur of the storm to the ‘childishness’ of the figures,10 and Andrew Wilton has noted the ‘horizontal stress’ of the landscape, while ‘the dynamic turbulence ... is derived almost entirely from the handling of chiaroscuro’,11 making it such an apt subject for tonal mezzotint engraving.
The composition is recorded, as ‘4[:] 5 Beckfords’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12156; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 23a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)12 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.13 It also appears later in the sketchbook, as ‘Beckford Plague’, in a list of ‘Historical’ subjects (Tate D12170; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 30a).14 It is again noted, as ‘5 Plague’, with other ‘Historical’ subjects inside the back cover (Tate D40721; Turner Bequest CIII) of the Tabley Sketchbook, No.1 of circa 1808.15
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by Charles Turner, bears the publication date 20 February 1808 and was issued to subscribers as ‘The 5th Plague of Egypt the Picture late in the possession of W,, Beckford Esqr.’ in part 3 (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.12–16;16 see also Tate D08116–D08119; Turner Bequest CXVI O, P, Q, R). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A00941) and the published engraving (A00942). It is one of eight published Liber subjects in Turner’s ‘Historical’ category (see also Tate D08106, D08139, D08144, D08149, D08162, D08166, D08169; Turner Bequest CXVI E, CXVII P, U, CXVIII H, L, O, Vaughan Bequest CXVII L).
Turner probably worked on his drawing of a subsequent episode, the Tenth Plague of Egypt, at about the same time (Tate D08162; Turner Bequest CXVIII H), although it was not published in the Liber until part 12, in 1816.
The present sheet was in the collection of Henry Vaughan by 1872.17
Exodus 9:23; verse concludes: ‘and the Lord rained hail upon the land of Egypt.’
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.10–12 no.13, pl.10 (colour).
See: John Gage in Gage, Jerrold Ziff, Nicholas Alfrey and others, J.M.W. Turner, à l’occasion du cinquantième anniversaire du British Council, exhibition catalogue, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris 1983, p.63; Butlin and Joll 1984, p.11; Forrester 1996, p.63.
Exodus 9:1–7.
Exodus 9:13–35.
Exodus 9:19.
Exodus 9: 25.
Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 1980, p.[133]; Forrester 1996, p.63.
Cook and Wedderburn III 1903, p.240.
Brooke 1885, pp.[56]–7
Wilton 1980, pp.[133], 135; see also Forrester 1996, p.63.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.163 (transcribed).
Ibid., p.158 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.30–9; 1906, pp.37–48; Finberg 1924, pp.45–64.
See [J.E. Taylor and Henry Vaughan], Exhibition Illustrative of Turner’s Liber Studiorum, Containing Choice Impressions of the First States, Etchings, Touched Proofs, together with the Unpublished Plates, and a Few Original Drawings for the Work, exhibition catalogue, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London 1872, p.23.
Technical Notes:
There is adventitious material at the lower right, giving a slight sheen to small areas of the dark washes, and two flecks of light blue-grey along the top edge of the dark structure to the right. The paper was possibly washed initially. The sky is painted dark on dark, leaving lighter washes for clouds; wet washes were used for details, with light scratches for the lightning and heavier scratching-out for the foreground lights. Fingerprints can be seen in the foliage of the fallen tree. The heavy washes are not very medium-rich. Umber and vermilion pigments give an overall cool brown colour with reddish areas – a uniform red wash is evident in the reserved area of clear sky.1
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘61’ centre right, ‘2’ bottom centre, and ‘5th Plague –’ bottom right
The sheet is extensively abraded where it has previously been stuck down.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘The Fifth Plague of Egypt c.1806–7 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-the-fifth-plague-of-egypt-r1131722, accessed 21 June 2024.