Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

The Fall of Anarchy : Politics and Anatomy in an Enigmatic Painting by J.M.W. Turner

The subject of Turner’s mysterious unfinished painting, known today as Death on a Pale Horse, is a problem that has baffled generations of scholars. It has been proposed that it is a response to the death of Turner’s father in 1829 or to the cholera outbreak of 1832 but these suggestions are at best circumstantial. This paper offers a new interpretation of this enigmatic painting, linking it principally to the cause of political Reform.

The Turner Bequest includes a number of paintings whose subjects remain obscure, one of them being an unfinished canvas that was formerly catalogued as A Skeleton Falling Off a Horse in Mid-Air, and is now tentatively titled Death on a Pale Horse(?) c.1825–30 (fig.1). The style and execution of the painting suggest a date for its production from the later 1820s to the early 1830s. The prominence and scale of the central forms of the composition extends a tendency seen in other works of this period when Turner experimented with paintings where the figures are dominating presences.1 Yet this painting puts at centre stage not a living being, but a skeletal body. The painting’s unfinished state and its macabre subject have conspired to make it one of Turner’s most enigmatic and unsettling pictures. Without further contextual or narrative underpinnings that might explain it, the painting has the iconic concentration and visual punch of a memento mori. The archetypal figure of Death looms out of a dark background, its open arms spread wide as though to embrace the spectator. The skeleton’s strangely undefined mount, a mere cipher of a horse, adds to the picture’s otherworldly and nightmarish effect. The overall impression is of an apparition, a phantasm, whose oneiric quality propels it out of everyday experience into another realm.

J.M.W. Turner, Death on a Pale Horse (?) c.1825–30

J.M.W. Turner
Death on a Pale Horse (?) c.1825–30

That said, the central image is relatively unambiguous and clearly depicts a cadaver wearing a crown, bent forwards over the back of a horse and falling towards the viewer. At the bottom of the canvas are barely visible outlines that may perhaps be interpreted as buildings of various sorts on the right, and, on the left, as people grouped around a recumbent figure, but the marks in both areas are very faint and much too indefinite to draw any firm conclusions.2 The skeleton and horse are illuminated by the ruddy clouds at top left but the horse is rearing back from a more ethereal source of light at the right. The cadaver’s outstretched arms show that it retains the supernatural animation of the phantasmagorical skeleton seen in traditional depictions of the Dance of Death,3 or of the figure of Death, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.4 The current title, Death on a Pale Horse, therefore proposes the Book of Revelation as Turner’s inspiration, the skeletal body conflating the rider of the pale horse (Death) with the crowned rider of the white horse.5

This is, at first sight, a reasonable interpretation of the picture, especially given the fact that the horsemen of the Apocalypse had been taken up as a subject for painting by some of Turner’s near contemporaries, including versions by John Hamilton Mortimer (1775), Benjamin West (1783, 1796 and 1817), Philip James de Loutherbourg (1798) and William Blake (1800).6 However, iconographical difficulties undermine this reading. Turner’s skeletal horseman is not posed as the conventional figure of Death, riding triumphantly to lay waste to humanity, but as a slumped figure in defeat. While the present title cannot therefore be maintained, a more satisfactory analysis of Turner’s motives and meaning has proved elusive. The painting is currently considered to be either a deeply personal response to the death of Turner’s father in 1829 or a meditation on the cholera epidemic of 1832. In 2002 James Hamilton speculated that the painting’s subject was the cholera epidemic, but that the inclusion of the coronet on the skeleton’s head was intended to show that the disease affected all classes, adding that ‘it is a small step from that suggestion to the idea that the painting also alludes to the possible consequences of a failure of the Reform Bill’.7 It will be proposed here that this work was painted in or shortly after 1833, that it was indeed prompted by the agitation for political reform in the early 1830s, but that its symbolism is more concrete; specifically, that it refers directly to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s newly published ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ (1832) and that the presentation of the skeletal body is informed by contemporary debates concerning human remains. If this argument is accepted, the painting should be re-catalogued as The Fall of Anarchy and dated c.1833–4.

The alternative interpretations – that the painting is either a personal reflection on the death of Turner’s father in 1829 or a response to the cholera epidemic of 1832 – are both unsatisfactory. It is certainly true that the winter of 1829–30 witnessed three deaths that affected Turner deeply: first his father, then Harriet Wells, a daughter of his friend W.F. Wells, also in late 1829, and finally Sir Thomas Lawrence in January 1830. As Turner wrote to the painter George Jones in February 1830, the day after Lawrence’s funeral, ‘My poor father’s death proved a heavy blow upon me, and has been followed by others of the same dark kind.’8 If the painting were a personal document, perhaps even a form of therapy to cope with the ‘heavy blow’ his father’s death had dealt him, it might be regarded as something that was never intended for public view and therefore never needed to be completed. Yet given what we know of the rest of Turner’s oeuvre, this would be uncharacteristic of his practice. Apart from his erotic drawings, and perhaps the Petworth sketches, there is little unexhibited work in the Turner Bequest that one might characterise as solely concerned with intimate emotional situations or affective responses to events, and nothing that does so symbolically.9 Moreover, with the exception of the early Self-Portrait of c.1799 (Tate N00458), Turner did not use oil painting for (private) self-expression but for subjects that could potentially be exhibited in public and used to engage in public discourse, albeit that some oils remained unfinished or were abandoned. Even a painting like Peace – Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 (Tate N00528), commemorating the death of his colleague Sir David Wilkie, which is arguably the most personal painting Turner ever showed, was exhibited in 1842 at the Royal Academy with Turner’s painting of Napoleon on St Helena, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 (Tate N00529), to make a wider public point about the contributions made to contemporary life by two such different careers. There is also the problem of chronology, for it will be shown below that Turner adopted a design published in John Flaxman’s Anatomical Studies (1833) for the skeleton, which indicates that this paintingwas produced in or after that year rather than in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death in 1829. For all these reasons, its field of reference must lie beyond his personal grief.

The cholera outbreak of 1832 is, prima facie, a more likely stimulus for Turner’s mysterious painting. By the end of the epidemic some 52,000 deaths from cholera had been reported in Britain, 6,500 of them in London, and it was a major national concern.10 Yet it would surely have been unwise for Turner to have exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy whose subject was Death on a Pale Horse, even a year or so after the intense anxieties of 1832 had subsided, and risking offending public sensibility with such a morbid allusion to what had occurred. Furthermore, as already argued, the idea that the painting refers to the ravages of the epidemic cannot be sustained, given that the traditional personification of Death is not apparent here. Rather than the domineering skeletal rider of iconographic convention, we are shown instead a cadaver sprawled insecurely over the back of a rearing horse. Irrespective of its ghastly appearance, what Turner seems to depict is not Death triumphant but a more vulnerable figure.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Carcase of an Ox c.1640–45

Rembrandt van Rijn
The Carcase of an Ox c.1640–5
Glasgow Museums  

For all its strangeness, the painting invokes artistic traditions. The early 1830s mark a moment when Turner was renewing his interest in Rembrandt, painting a number of pictures that emulate his example.11 The dramatic chiaroscuro of this picture is of a piece with his admiration for the Dutch artist’s use of light and colour. Moreover, in taking something that was normally the preserve of the dissection theatre and making of it an elevated subject Turner may well have found support in Rembrandt’s achievement. In September 1817, on his first trip to the Netherlands, he had visited the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild Chambers where The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp 1632 (Mauritshuis, The Hague) and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Jan Deijman 1656 (Amsterdam Museum) were displayed.12 However, the dynamic appearance of the skeleton in this picture far exceeds Rembrandt’s tranquil representation of the corpse Dr Tulp is investigating and is a more chaotic and unsettling view of a cadaver than even the eviscerated body presided over by Dr Deijman. With Rembrandt, the body has been subjected to the demands of medical research and is opened for rational inspection. Turner’s cadaver is, in contrast, a display of bone and flesh as brute matter and in that respect has more of an affinity with the four-square presentation of the carcass in Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox. What today is the better-known painting of this subject, dating from 1655, (held in the collection of the Musée du Louvre, Paris) was in a private collection in Holland and Turner does not record seeing it in 1817, but it would certainly have been possible for him to examine another version of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox in London: The Carcase of an Ox c.1640–45 (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow; fig.2).

This variant was with the art dealer Samuel Woodburn and was highly praised: ‘It may truly be said of this picture, that however ignoble the subject may be, the masterhand of Rembrandt has here subdued objections, and given qualities which must ever recommend it as a work of art.’13 Woodburn was a renowned dealer and was well known to Turner; he had a large stock of Dutch pictures and probably acquired this painting in the early 1830s.14

Art historian John Gage has plausibly suggested that Turner drew his inspiration for the horse from one of the mounts on the Parthenon frieze.15 He had known Lord Elgin’s collection since its display in temporary premises on Park Lane, visiting it by special arrangement in August 1806, before it was open to the general public.16 He was also, of course, able to view the Parthenon reliefs regularly from 1817 after they were installed in the British Museum. Gage suggests, however, that Turner most probably had recourse to Thomas Stothard’s engravings, made after drawings by William Pars, which were published in 1816 for Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens (fig.3).17

After William Pars, The South Frieze of the Parthenon, engraved by Thomas Stothard, published 1816

After William Pars
The South Frieze of the Parthenon, engraved by Thomas Stothard, published 1816
British Museum
© Trustees of the British Museum 

Given Turner’s skill and experience in painting horses, his decision to draw inspiration from the sculptures of the Parthenon should not be understood merely as a formal short-cut. Employing such an iconic model is better interpreted as a calculated reference to a well-known collection of sculptures, whose qualities had been keenly debated by artists and connoisseurs since their arrival in England. Alluding to the frieze sets up a heightened contrast: the horse’s rightful rider, one of the young men of the Panathenaic procession, has been usurped by a skeleton; life has been supplanted by death; the immaculate body by a mutilated cadaver.

‘Like death in the Apocalypse’

The specific iconography of the picture is unusual. As already noted, it does not make use of traditional Dance of Death or apocalyptic imagery. For that reason it may seem to be Turner’s idiosyncratic invention and therefore beyond identification or interpretation. However, there was one significant text in circulation that described just such a skeletal rider: Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. Originally drafted in 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre, it was first published in 1832, with a preface by poet and critic Leigh Hunt, and was very widely reviewed. To represent the forces of political repression, Shelley invented the figure of Anarchy, described initially as follows:

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw –

This triumphant figure, later described by Shelley as ‘Anarchy the Skeleton’,19 is eventually defeated. As ‘a rushing light of clouds and splendour’ emerges, we learn that the dread figure is no more:

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.20

Here, then, Shelley describes a skeletal figure on a white horse, deliberately modelled on the familiar apocalyptic rider from the Bible.21 However, unlike the figure of Death in the Book of Revelation, whose victory is absolute, Shelley’s tyrannical Anarchy is overthrown, fallen to the ground while his horse abandons him. Although the right hand of Turner’s skeleton is so obscured that it is futile to look for a sceptre, there are some indications of an object in its grasp which could have been worked up to become one and otherwise there is a reasonable concordance between the figure presented in Shelley’s evocative stanzas and Turner’s dream-like image. It seems reasonable therefore to assert that the crowned, skeletal figure tumbling from his white horse may be understood as Shelley’s figure of Anarchy at the moment of his defeat. Such a reading of the picture is undoubtedly contentious on two counts, one circumstantial and one ideological. It proposes that Turner, whose interest in Shelley has traditionally been thought to be relatively slight, could have known of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ shortly after it was published and that his political sentiments were close enough to Shelley’s to want to make such an explicit reference to the poem.

Turning to the first of these considerations, Turner’s initial awareness of Shelley’s work is difficult to date. His personal library contained nothing by Shelley, apart from what appeared in an anthology of contemporary British poetry, published in 1838.22 Nevertheless, John Gage has surmised that in at least three of Turner’s paintings of the 1840s, Shelley’s influence may be detected: The Sun of Venice going to Sea exhibited 1843 (Tate N00535), whose epigraph reworks part of ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’ (1819); Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 (Tate N00532), whose conception of prismatic bubbles owes a debt to ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (1820); and Queen Mab’s Cave exhibited 1846 (Tate N00548), which draws explicitly on Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ (1813).23 Neither ‘Prometheus Unbound’ nor ‘Queen Mab’ were in the anthology he owned, so Turner presumably turned to Shelley’s Poetical Works, edited by Mary Shelley, which was published in 1839, although it is also conceivable that he knew them from their original editions. As for ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, the critical reviews in 1832 provided enough information to give the gist of the poem, whether or not Turner acquired his own copy. The Monthly Review, for example, paraphrased ‘the skeleton Anarchy on his white horse, splashed with blood, with pale lips, and looking like Death in the Apocalypse’ before quoting extracts from the poem, including the verse in which the death of Anarchy is described.24 Even if known to Turner only in excerpted passages from the reviews, the poem’s visual imagery may have proved appealing, perhaps especially in the lines describing the overthrowing of Anarchy by what is described as a light-filled mist that takes on bodily form and awakens thoughts of resistance. Furthermore, given Turner’s longstanding meditations in his own verses, Fallacies of Hope, which he had appended to some of his paintings from 1812 onwards, he would presumably have found attractive Shelley’s protagonist, the ‘maniac maid’ Hope, who ‘looked more like Despair’ and whose seemingly certain destruction by Murder, Fraud and Anarchy is averted by that same vaporous emanation.25 If the faint marks at the bottom of the canvas do indeed represent the beginnings of an outline of a recumbent figure they may have been the basis for a representation of Hope, described by Shelley as prostrate in front of Anarchy before her deliverance. Similarly, the patch of white pigment at the right of Turner’s composition, from which the horse is recoiling, may be the place where the misty form that overwhelms Anarchy was to be introduced.

With respect to the political message of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, it is important to remember that its appearance in 1832 occasioned a very different reception to what it would have received in 1819 when a repressive state was riven with dissension. Hunt had withheld the poem in 1819, but judged the climate of 1832, shortly after the Great Reform Act had become law, to be appropriate for its publication. The reviews largely concurred that the poem should no longer be considered inflammatory. For some, as for example the critic of the Athenaeum, Shelley was a great genius whose reputation had been traduced and ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was a very welcome addition to his oeuvre.26 Other critics felt that Shelley’s stance had lost much of its contentiousness in the circumstances of the 1830s. The Times, for example, declared that ‘we gladly take occasion from a new work to lay before the public which must please all parties; – nay, even the most “Conservative” must allow that the Radical poet has exhibited not merely the enthusiasm of genuine poetry, but the sound principles of constitutional freedom’.27 Nevertheless, Shelley’s radical views were still a source of concern for some,28 and Leigh Hunt’s preface was at pains to play down their more revolutionary aspects; he emphasised Shelley’s respect for Reform and the people’s fortitude in working towards it without violence. It was in this spirit that the Monthly Review summed up the poem as ‘powerfully calculated to rouse the latent spirit of the people to vindicate their rights’.29 Other critics, however, were more sceptical of the poem’s application to the current situation. The Literary Examiner questioned whether Shelley’s call for action had any relevance to practical politics.30 Likewise, the Spectator considered Shelley’s advocacy of passive resistance in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to be far from insurrectionary and declared that the poem’s long-delayed publication had robbed it of whatever ideological force it once had: ‘The poem was a sort of admonitory prophecy, full of power, hope, and wisdom: now it is published after the event, when it becomes only a curious work of art – a mere poem, of more or less vigour and talent’.31

As these comments indicate, the exposure of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the reviews ensured that its major themes and especially its advocacy of political reform were made abundantly clear to contemporary readers. Reform was a cause to which Turner, too, was drawn, fostered by his long-standing friendship with one of his patrons, the Yorkshire landowner and Whig MP Walter Fawkes. Fawkes was a political ally of Sir Francis Burdett, whose agitation for Reform had also attracted Shelley.32 Fawkes associated with the key reformers of the day and was in the Chair when the first Hampden Club for parliamentary reform was inaugurated in April 1812.33 He was also a committee member of the Union for Parliamentary Reform, founded in June that year.34 In a speech delivered in May 1812, celebrating the anniversary of Burdett’s election, Fawkes decisively sided with the radical wing of the reformers.35 His later pamphlet The Englishman’s Manual; or, a dialogue between a Tory and a Reformer (1817) sets out with clarity and vigour the cause to which he adhered.36 As well as regularly petitioning for Reform, Fawkes spoke out against the Peterloo Massacre in terms that were so inflammatory that Lord Castlereagh quoted them in Parliament: ‘Mr Fawkes was represented to have expressed himself to this effect—“that the louder they complained, the sharper did their enemies make their swords, and that he would rather perish in the temple of liberty than see it converted into a barrack”.’37

Turner’s sympathy with Fawkes’s political beliefs explains the addition of an inscription (fig.4) to a handful of presentation proofs of the engraving The Birthplace of John Wycliffe (The Morning Star of Liberty), near Rokeby, Yorkshire 1823.38 This text outlines the dissemination of the Bible in English from theologian John Wycliffe’s time to the present and ends with a reference to ‘the Trial of Humphrey Boyle before Mr Common Serjt. Denman[.] Women and Boys were ordered to quit the court while the defendant read extracts from the Bible.’ Boyle was a working-class shopman, who was working for the radical publisher Richard Carlile – who was in prison for blasphemy and seditious libel at the time – when he was arrested in December 1821 at Carlile’s shop in Fleet Street, The Temple of Reason. As the author of a radical pamphlet, Boyle, too, was charged with blasphemy and seditious libel, detained until his trial the following May and then sentenced to a further eighteen months’ imprisonment and required to find sureties for five years thereafter. Boyle’s pamphlet attacked religion as idolatry, criticised the Constitution and supported Reform. As part of his defence he read explicit passages from the Bible to demonstrate its inclusion of obscene material and the court was cleared when he did so.39 The text added to Turner’s Wycliffe plate was presumably for circulation among three or four of Fawkes’s closest friends and allies; nevertheless, Turner’s willingness to include this reference to Boyle’s trial on his design shows that he was prepared to support radical causes via the most outspoken sources of dissension in the 1820s.

After J.M.W. Turner, The Birthplace of John Wycliffe (The Morning Star of Liberty), near Rokeby, Yorkshire, engraved by John Pye, 1823

After J.M.W. Turner
The Birthplace of John Wycliffe (The Morning Star of Liberty), near Rokeby, Yorkshire, engraved by John Pye, 1823
British Museum, London
© Trustees of the British Museum 

Fawkes’s death in 1825 robbed Turner of one of his deepest friendships, but his political inspiration lived on.40 Turner’s consistent endorsement of Reform is manifested especially in works produced in the early 1830s as the Reform Bill was debated, including the watercolours The Northampton Election, 6 December 1830 c.1830–1 (fig.5) and Nottingham c.1831 (Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, Nottingham), and the oil painting The Prince of Orange, William III, Embarked from Holland, and Landed at Torbay, November 4th, 1688, after a Stormy Passage exhibited 1832 (fig.6).

The two oils exhibited in 1835 and titled The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 have also been interpreted as reflections on the parallel between the physical destruction of the medieval seat of government and the end of the old political order occasioned by the Reform Act of 1832.41 Reading ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the wake of the Reform Act, and accepting Leigh Hunt’s interpretation of its message, Shelley’s poem could be understood as prophesying what had come to pass only thirteen years after the violent repression of the Peterloo Massacre. In like manner, a painting depicting The Fall of Anarchy might be understood as alluding to the victory of Reform over reactionary forces. Certainly, the idea of a skeletal body representing the old order was not confined to Shelley’s poem. The British Museum collection contains a design for a transparency exhibited at 14 Catherine Street, Strand, to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill, with a skeleton presiding over the enemies of Reform (fig.7).

Design of a transparency exhibited at 14 Catherine Street, Strand, on the occasion of the general illumination to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill, 1832

Design of a transparency exhibited at 14 Catherine Street, Strand, on the occasion of the general illumination to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill, 1832
British Museum, London
© Trustees of the British Museum 

The body in question

The depiction of the skeleton in Turner’s picture is of a different order entirely to the few other instances of such remains in his oeuvre. In those examples the skeletons are represented somewhat cursorily and on a small scale.42 Here, in contrast, the large, centrally positioned skeleton dominates the composition. But beyond the visual emphasis Turner affords it, the skeleton’s presentation is also unusual when compared to conventional approaches to the representation of Death. The anatomy of the body is revealed as though it were partly dissected, or even butchered. It will be argued here that this approach is deliberate, and that a precise description of the cadaver may further illuminate the context and meaning of the painting. The analysis proposes that Turner presents us with a coherent image of a mutilated corpse and that a richer explanation for the painting may be found with reference to the debates occasioned by the Anatomy Act of 1832.

Because the painting is unfinished, Turner’s incomplete forms are relatively indistinct. However, it is possible to analyse the principal features anatomically. The arms, skull, backbone and ribs of the cadaver are visible, as well as some of the muscle tissue attached to them. The skull is positioned face down, with the top of the head (vertex) highlighted and the face, foreshortened and in deep shadow, dimly visible below what seems to be a simple crown or coronet. The head is positioned tilted slightly to its right, looking towards the bottom left of the painting. The body’s left arm (on our right) is rotated to face forwards, with its thumb presented radically foreshortened. The right arm (on our left) is bent at the elbow and the glenohumeral joint, where the arm joins the shoulder, appears to be disarticulated, for the head of the humerus is visible. The right scapula (on our left) is absent and some of the large muscles overlying the rib cage are also missing. Looking down the trunk, the bone arc visible on the left is possibly the right hip bone’s iliac crest, with what may be intended as the greater trochanter of the right femur visible just beyond it. Careful analysis reveals that the cadaver is coherent in its overall presentation, with its constituent parts depicted correctly in proportion to one another.43 What is abundantly clear, however, is that its individual anatomical features are presented without the clarity of an anatomical atlas. The osteology in Turner’s picture is obscure (could the bone arc actually represent the right scapula, displaced further down the trunk?) and the myology is even more so, with the body’s soft tissue rendered not so much as the interpretable muscular structure of an écorché figure but rather as undifferentiated flesh. Overall, Turner’s presentation is of a body that has been mangled.

The fact that this depiction is anatomically plausible strongly suggests that Turner was working from a visual source that allowed him to produce a credible representation. The absence of any studies of human skeletons in Turner’s sketchbooks is significant, for it indicates that he had no store of student drawings or later studies to assist him in making this image. The only illustrated work on anatomy in his personal library was John Tinney’s Compendious Treatise of Anatomy, which he had used as a student.44 None of Tinney’s illustrations, however, depart from the standard presentations of osteology used in medical atlases, whereas Turner’s skeleton is presented obliquely and foreshortened. What Turner turned to instead is almost certainly John Flaxman’s Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the Use of Artists (1833). One of its plates shows, at top right, the spine and ribs of a skeleton, presented in foreshortening in an analogous position to the body in Turner’s painting (fig.8).45

After John Flaxman Plate 3 [Three views of bones of the upper torso] from Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the Use of Artists, engraved by Henry Landseer, published 1833

After John Flaxman
Plate 3 [Three views of bones of the upper torso] from Anatomical Studies of the Bones and Muscles, for the Use of Artists, engraved by Henry Landseer, published 1833
Royal Academy, London 

In support of this hypothesis it is notable that in addition to the cadaver’s general orientation in Turner’s picture, the highlights making visible the tips of the ribs below the body’s right arm duplicate their appearance in the plate. Likewise, the sketchy outline of the left scapula is close in design to the engraving. As a posthumous work, Anatomical Studies would have been of interest to Flaxman’s colleagues in the Royal Academy. It may have been of additional significance to Turner insofar as it was dedicated to his friend, Francis Chantrey, who had acquired Flaxman’s original anatomical drawings and bound them into his copy.46 The book’s date of publication provides a terminus post quem for Turner’s painting, making its production no earlier than 1833.47

The presentation of the body calls for more comment. In the plate from Anatomical Studies only bones are depicted, whereas Turner shows flesh, too, as though the body had been roughly flayed, some parts removed or displaced and its muscles exposed haphazardly. Whatever its title, had the picture been exhibited in public this brutal emphasis on the materiality of the cadaver would have been confrontational. Turner’s rendition of these remains presents neither the symbolic skeleton of conventional Apocalypse iconography, nor the intelligible cadaver of the anatomist, but disarticulated bone and mutilated tissue. This might be considered simply as a tactic to show corruptible flesh at its most abject, but it is also arguable that the ruined body had a particular resonance in the circumstances of the early 1830s when the trade in bodies for dissection was prominently discussed. Since 1752 the legal supply of corpses for training in anatomy had been restricted to the cadavers of murderers, whose dissection was seen as a punitive measure and a useful deterrent.48 The idea of denying the murderer burial, treating the body as good only for dissection, was contentious for many anatomists who disliked being made complicit in the workings of the penal system. The paucity of bodies made available by this means had also become a problem. With demand from anatomists in excess of the legal supply of corpses, grave-robbing or body-snatching by so-called resurrectionists made good the deficit, a practice conducted with the unofficial but frankly acknowledged compliance of the medical establishment.49

Activated by both of these concerns, a number of voices in the early nineteenth century made the case for reform and the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy was ordered by the House of Commons to investigate the situation and make recommendations for a more reliable and better regulated system for supplying corpses for dissection. Chaired by Henry Warburton, a Benthamite MP, the Committee’s Report was submitted on 22 July 1828 and recommended that, if unclaimed, the bodies of the inmates of workhouses, hospitals and charitable institutions should become the source of supply.50 Some three months after the Committee’s work was published the murders committed by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh were revealed. The trial in December 1828 was a sensation, and although neither man was a resurrectionist, the evidence submitted in court revealed the ease with which their victims’ bodies had been sold to the Edinburgh anatomist Dr Robert Knox.51 In the wake of public alarm about grave-robbing and ‘Burking’, Warburton’s first Anatomy Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1829: A Bill for preventing the Unlawful Disinterment of Human Bodies and for Regulating Schools of Anatomy. The Bill passed the scrutiny of the Commons but failed in the Lords. Then, in November 1831, the crimes of the London resurrectionists and Burkers John Bishop and Thomas Williams came to light. Again, their trial and execution were the talk of the nation and laid bare the trade in corpses that sustained the anatomy schools.52 Warburton introduced his second attempt to regulate the provision of cadavers for dissection on 15 December 1831, ten days after Bishop and Williams were executed. Entitled A Bill for Regulating Schools of Anatomy, it passed successfully through Parliament and became law on 1 August 1832.

As its critics pointed out, Warburton’s proposed legislation was discriminatory, for whereas the resurrectionists targeted any grave they could plunder, the proposed legal and regulated system would ensure that, apart from voluntary donations, the unclaimed bodies of paupers would supply anatomists with the cadavers they required. Moreover, what had previously been an extension of the penal code – precisely because of the awfulness of its denial of an intact burial – would now be applied not to murderers but to the bodies of the poor. There were a number of public protests by working people, including attacks on anatomy schools and, memorably, the supporters of Michael Sadler in the 1832 Leeds election carried a banner depicting a skeleton, with the ironic legend ‘Anatomy Bill to better the condition of the helpless poor’.53 William Cobbett was one of those protesting vociferously against what he referred to as ‘The Dead Body Bill’, petitioning against Warburton’s original Bill of 1829 as well as its successor of 1832. In his 1832 petition to the House of Lords, Cobbett warned against legislation that would promote the sale and trafficking of the bodies of the poor ‘as in the carcasses of beasts that perish’, citing passages from the Bible in support of the burial rite and appealing to the clergy to oppose this sacrilegious assault.54 In his Two-Penny Trash he alerted his readers to the dangers they faced: ‘the House of Lords will now soon decide, whether you and your parents and wives and children, be, after death to sleep quietly in your graves, or whether you be to be sold and cut up, like dogs and horses.’55

The idea of the violated body in the hands of the anatomist was voiced by many, not only in connection with the Anatomy Act but also once the extent of body-snatching became widely known in the 1820s. Dissection and the disposal of human remains were variously described as: ‘cut in pieces, mangled and destroyed’, ‘mutilated and dismembered’, ‘bodies cast away as mere filth, or given as food to animals’, and ‘that last species of degradation’.56 The public revulsion against dissection helps explain the widespread and often vocal interest in Warburton’s two Bills, as well as the more general dread of grave-robbing and Burking to supply anatomists in the later 1820s and early 1830s. Working class anxiety about dissection was deepened after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, with a number of Radical voices arguing that the legislation would, in effect, see the new workhouses become purveyors of corpses for dissection.57 In his 1834 satire Surplus Population and Poor-law Bill, Cobbett has one of his characters liken dissection to being ‘cut up to pieces like the carcass of a dead horse at the dog kennel’.58

The proposition that Turner was alive to the debates surrounding dissection cannot be proved, but their salience in the press would have been hard to ignore and his medical acquaintances could have given him detailed insights beyond what the newspapers and journals reported.59 His professional associate and personal physician, Sir Anthony Carlisle, had briefed the government on the issue and might well have informed Turner about it.60 Turner’s friendship with the Somerville family is likely to have been especially productive. He had become acquainted with the scientist and mathematician Mary Somerville in the 1820s and associated with her and her second husband Dr William Somerville until they emigrated to Italy in 1838.61 William Somerville’s illegitimate son, James Craig Somerville, was part of the Somerville family circle. He followed his father’s profession and was one of those invited to contribute expert testimony to the 1828 Select Committee on Anatomy. In January 1832, James Somerville published a pamphlet lobbying for Warburton’s second Anatomy Bill.62 After the passing of the Anatomy Act he was appointed Inspector of Anatomy for England and Wales, with responsibility for seeing the new arrangements put in place and properly discharged. With this appointment Somerville became, in effect, the public guardian of professional standards in the supply of bodies for dissection.63 It is hard to imagine that the Somervilles did not discuss with their acquaintances, Turner among them, the Anatomy Act and their son’s involvement in it.

Turner’s presentation of the skeletal body in this picture is poised between the intact cadaver and the anatomised skeleton, as though witnessing a dissection after the corpse had been flayed and some of the superficial muscles of the back had been removed. But as has been noted above, this is not a body whose anatomical features have been progressively revealed for the purposes of instruction, and Turner’s presentation makes a stark contrast with, for example, the anatomical studies made by Haydon and his pupils in the early nineteenth century.64 The body here looks to be mangled; butchered precisely in the way that opponents of the Anatomy Act had so forcefully protested against. In these debates it was regularly pointed out that those who championed the new legislation on the grounds of educational necessity had no intention of allowing their own bodies, or the bodies of their loved ones, to be made available for that purpose. Moreover, once the workhouses supplied sufficient corpses for dissection, those in privileged positions would have no further reason to fear the resurrectionists; the new arrangements for supplying anatomists would affect only the destitute. If Turner is indeed depicting Anarchy here, the cadaver that he has represented is one that has had meted out to it what the Anatomy Act reserved for the poor. The mangled body of this fallen ruler constitutes an especially apt development of Shelley’s deliberate inversion of values in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. It is as though Turner has adopted the anti-hierarchical principles of the reformers to extend the workings of the Anatomy Act to the highest ranks of society.

A project abandoned

Could Turner, normally so circumspect in his allusions, have ventured on a picture with a direct connection to ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ and the legislation of the early 1830s? Did he entertain the possibility of showing it in the Royal Academy exhibition? These are necessarily speculative questions, for the picture’s unfinished state indicates that Turner abandoned the painting with only the horse and its tumbling rider anywhere close to resolution, but whether his decision to cease work on it was the result of creative dissatisfaction or political caution is an intriguing question. As is well known, Turner began an ambitious painting of the 1830s, now known as A Disaster at Sea c.1835 (Tate N00558; fig.9), that probably records the fate of the convict ship Amphitrite, which was wrecked off Boulogne in 1833 and all its human cargo drowned because of the ship’s master’s obduracy.65 That picture, too, was abandoned. Turner’s decision to stop work on it is unexplained but the debacle of the loss of the Amphitrite might have been considered too contentious a subject to be placed in the public arena.

Political caution in respect of a picture celebrating Reform may seem unwarranted, especially after the successful passage of the Great Reform Bill and the generally supportive reception of Shelley’s poem in the reviews. But this is to forget the volatility of national politics and the strength of conservative opinion in the 1830s. The Whig government that had passed the Reform Bill in 1832 was dismissed by William IV in November 1834 and a Conservative government installed in its place, initially under the Duke of Wellington until Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister in December. The Conservative party made gains in the 1835 general election, held between 6 January and 6 February, and ran a minority administration until April 1835, when Lord Melbourne’s Whigs returned to power. Many of those who had celebrated the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 were thus made to realise that the cause of progressive politics was not, after all, inevitable. As for ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ itself, not every critic was disposed to excuse Shelley’s ardour now that the cause of Reform was victorious. For the British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review, to take one example, Shelley’s was a dangerous mind:

No conscientious man … no sincere lover of his country, will go about recklessly disseminating opinions, which, taking root in the very highways of society, may at a future day spring up armed men, and fill the country with war and bloodshed. Mr. Shelley endeavoured to do this, and gloried in so doing ­­– if his apologists deny the accusation – we refer them to his works, and upon them rest our argument.66

If public exhibition of a picture indebted to Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was unwise in the early 1830s, might Turner have intended it as a posthumous tribute to Walter Fawkes, perhaps envisaging his son, Francis Hawkesworth Fawkes, as a potential purchaser of the painting? Hawkesworth Fawkes remained friendly with Turner for the rest of his life, arranged exhibitions of his work at Leeds in 1826 and 1839 and bought Rembrandt’s Daughter 1827 (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts) in the year that it was painted. Turner’s Rembrandtesque approach to The Fall of Anarchy might therefore have proved similarly appealing. Fawkes was also politically active. He was wholeheartedly committed to his father’s cause and celebrated the ‘glorious triumph of reform principle’ with an anniversary dinner at Otley in 1833.67 In May 1835 Fawkes was made Chairman of the West Riding Reform and Registration Society, established to coordinate the activities of the Reform societies of the area as they added newly enfranchised voters to the electoral register.68 Earlier that year, campaigning in the general election, his rhetoric was strikingly radical; he spoke of ‘the dictatorship of the Duke of Wellington’ and approximated the famous refrain ‘Ye are many – they are few’, which closes ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, when reminding his listeners of ‘the old Tory principle of government – “the advantage of the few at the sacrifice of the interests of the many” – the leaning to the opinion of the few in preference to and in defiance of the opinion of the many’.69 However, whether or not Turner hoped Fawkes would be interested in this painting, Rembrandt’s Daughter remained the only picture by Turner that he ever bought.

It is unlikely that we will ever discover why Turner stopped work on this composition, and we can only guess how it would have been supplemented with other details, additional figures or atmospheric effects as he brought it to a full resolution. We also have no way of knowing how Turner would have titled it had it been completed. Although the account offered here has laid its heaviest emphasis on supplying a historical framework for this picture and situating it in a credible explanatory context, there is no compelling reason to suppose that Turner would have chosen a title that declared an allegiance to Shelley’s poem or these wider contexts and circumstances directly. As is well known, although some of his pictures make their liberal politics and humanitarian interests readily apparent, in other works the complexity of his imagery and his preference for disguised allusion ensure that much of their political or social reference has to be worked for if it is to be discerned. If, therefore, the arguments advanced here are accepted and the picture is re-catalogued as The Fall of Anarchy then that title needs to be understood merely as a convenience for modern scholarship and not an indication of Turner’s ultimate intentions for the title of the painting.

Although an analysis of the sort this paper has proposed is inevitably tentative, it draws attention to one of the most important aspects of Turner’s practice: his persistent commitment to modern circumstances and concerns. His oeuvre is best understood as a brilliant demonstration of the power of painting to address the world in all its complexity, natural and social, historical and contemporary. The Fall of Anarchy is no exception to that general rule.