Joseph Mallord William Turner R.A. 1775-1851
- Joseph Mallord William Turner R.A.
- Mercury and Herse
- signed lower centre: J M W Turner RA PP
- oil on canvas
Sir John Pender by 1872, his sale, Christie's, 29th May 1897, lot 82, bt. Tooth for 7500 gns.;
Sir Samuel Montagu, later Lord Swaythling by 1899, his sale, Christie's, 12th July 1946, lot 38, unsold;
Lord Swaythling's sale, Christie's, 16th June 1961, lot 65, bt. Betts for 7,800 gns.;
Turner's Gallery, 1812;
International Exhibition, 1862, no. 292;
Royal Academy, 1872, no. 131;
Royal Academy, 1891, no. 133;
Corporation of London Art Gallery, Guildhall, Loan Collection of Pictures and Drawings by J M W Turner R.A. and a Selection of Pictures by some of his Contemporaries, 1899, no. 20;
Royal Academy, 1907, no. 90;
Fine Art Palace, Shepherd's Bush, Franco-British Exhibition, 1908, no. 66;
Royal Academy, Exhibition of British Art c. 1000-1860, 1934, no. 692;
Leggatt, English Painting c. 1750-1850, 1963, no. 31;
Haus der Kunst, Munich, Im Licht von Claude Lorrain, 1983, no. 138
Farington's Diary, Vol. XI, 8th June 1811, p.3945;
Farington's Diary, Vol. XII, 5th February 1813;
Farington's Diary, Vol XII, 24th February 1813, p.4304;
John Barret, Turner and His Works, 1852, pp. 112, no. 98;
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J M W Turner, R.A., 1862, Vol. I, p. 383;
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J M W Turner, R.A., 1877, pp. 162, 572
C.F. Bell, A List of the Works contributed to Public Exhibitions by J.W.M. Turner, R.A., 1901, p 89, no. 120;
Sir Walter Armstong, Turner, 1902, pp. 85, 105, 225, illus. opp. p. 60;
Charles Clare, J.M.W. Turner, His Life and Work, 1951, p. 47;
A.J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1961, pp. 179-80, 190, 208, 386, 473, n. 161, 474, n. 176;
Michael Kitson, 'The English Genius of Landscape', Country Life, 10th October 1963, p. 868;
John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin, Turner, 1964, pp. 28, 32;
Jerrold Ziff, 'Copies of Claude's Paintings in the Sketch Books of J.M.W. Turner', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1965, Vol. LXV, p. 64, no. 20;
Jack Lindsay, J.M.W. Turner - His Life and Work, 1966, p. 115;
John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, 1969, pp. 89-90, pl.19;
Graham Reynolds, Turner, 1969, p. 186;
John Gage (Ed.), Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, 1980, pp. 48, no. 3, 162;
David Hill, 'A Newly Discovered Letter by Turner', Turner Society News, no. 23, Winter 1981-2, pp. 2-3;
Michael Kitson, 'Turner and Claude', Turner Studies, Vol. II, no. 2, pp. 7, 10;
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 1984, Text Volume pp. 80-82, no. 114, Plates Volume, plate 122;
John Gage, J.M.W. Turner - A Wonderful Range of Mind, 1987, p. 177, illus. no. 256;
Andrew Wilton, Turner in his time, 1987, pp. 124, 225, 242;
James Hamilton, Turner, 1997, pp. 140, 152
This impressive landscape was painted in 1811 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year. It attracted great attention at the exhibition, and was subsequently owned by a long line of distinguished collectors.
Farington records in his Diary that Earl Grey first “expressed a wish to have Turner’s large picture ‘Mercury & Herse’ & expressed that he would give 500 guineas for it”. The Prince Regent also praised the work in his speech at the Academy banquet as a fine composition in the manner of Claude, and this led to the circulation of a report that he was keen to buy it. As Farington remarks, this was not the case, and in his embarrassment “& under these circumstances with His usual caution, [Turner] will not name a price when asked by His acquaintance” (Farington, op cit, p.3945).
The painting was not bought by Lord Grey but was eventually purchased by Sir John Swinburne in February 1813 for 550 guineas (Ibid. p.4304). Sir John Edward Swinburne, 6th Bt. of Capheaton. was a generous patron of the arts. The Art Union periodical, which was normally biased against aristocratic patrons of art, did concede that Lord Swinburne, together with Lords Lansdowne and Northwick were exceptions amongst their class for their private patronage of British Art (Art Union, May 1839, p.59). Swinburne was friendly with a number of artists, including David Wilkie and William Mulready whom he met in 1811, and whom he engaged to teach his children the art of drawing. A large number of portraits of the Swinburne family, both by Mulready and the Swinburnes, attest to this strong relationship. Swinburne’s eldest son, Edward, was ‘very intimate with Turner’ and he ‘devoted the whole of his long life to the brush’ (W. Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, 1862, p.227). Edward Swinburne displayed some eccentric family values. His family lived by Lake Windermere and wore labourer’s clothes and went without shoes. He is said to have taken his children onto the lake in a boat before proceeding to throw them in one by one, allowing them to swim to shore. What he was keen to achieve by this is unclear, but he is also said to have put the clocks forward an hour, so that the family rose at 4am, although they thought that it was 5am (see Mrs B. Charlton, The Recollections of a Northumbrian Lady 1815-1866, 1949, p.194, pp.218-219).
His father showed none of this eccentricity and Sir John Swinburne served as M.P. for Launceston in 1788 and 1789, and subsequently as Sheriff of Northumberland 1799. On 13th July 1787 he married Emilia Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of Richard Henry Bennet of Beckenham, Kent, and the niece of Frances, Duchess of Northumberland. In addition to this wonderful Turner landscape, Swinburne’s collection is known to have included a portrait of himself by Gainsborough, as well as a number of works by Callcott, Harlow, and The Errand Boy by David Wilkie.
Mercury and Herse was subsequently owned by Sir John Pender, an impressive Victorian collector and patron of the arts who embodied the spirit of the successful entrepreneur and businessman. As a young man he entered the bookkeeping department of a textile factory in Glasgow where he was made General Manager at the age of twenty one. Pender transferred to Manchester and was active on the Cotton Exchange. He had broad business interests and by 1876 one of his companies, Eastern & Associated Telegraph Company, owned a third of the telegraph cables strung around the world. He was one of many collectors who used art to highlight the benefits of industry and in 1870 he commissioned the artist R. Dudley to depict him in the telegraph hut at Porthcurnow in the act of writing the first telegram carried over the British-India line.
The third prestigious owner of Mercury and Herse was Samuel Montagu, a merchant banker and philanthropist, who established a firm specialising in bullion and exchange services. Within two decades the firm ‘had assumed an undisputed lead in the silver market’ (Jewish Chronicle, 20th January 1911). In 1885 Montagu was elected as Liberal M.P. for the Whitechapel division of Tower Hamlets. He worked energetically for the interests of the poor in East London, and was made a baronet on 23rd June 1894. In 1907 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Swaythling and owned a fine collection of English paintings.
At the Royal Academy exhibition in 1811 the painting was accompanied by the lines translated from Ovid’s Metamorphoses…
“Close by the scared walls in wide Munichia’s plain,
The god well pleas’d beheld the virgin train”
Ovid relates the story that three sisters and other maidens were returning from celebrating the Panathenaea. Mercury saw Herse, a daughter of Cecrops King of Athens, at the head of this procession and immediately fell in love with her. Turner has placed Mercury in the lower right hand corner of the composition, and the buildings to the upper left of the composition must surely be intended to be taken for Athens.
As the Prince Regent himself observed in his Academy speech in 1811 it has long been acknowledged that this fine composition by Turner owes a great debt to the work of Claude Lorrain. The tonal warmth, and the arrangement of the composition itself evoke Claudian landscapes, and it is likely that Turner was inspired by seeing Paolo Veronese’s Hermes, Herse and Aglauros, at that time in Earl Fitzwilliam’s collection at Richmond, and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Butlin and Joll, op. cit. p.81). In the last of the series of lectures on perspective which Turner delivered on 12th February 1812 he discusses Veronese’s use of colour in this work. The fact that Turner has signed the present work ‘PP’ (Professor of Perspective) may be a conscious acknowledgement of a link between the two works. Turner’s composition, however, captures a mood of far greater romanticism than Claudian landscapes, and the fundamental independence of creation is emphasised by the existence of a number of preliminary drawings now in the Turner Bequest which relate to the present work (Isleworth Sketchbook – Turner Bequest XC p.57). It is perhaps also important to note that Turner painted a number of oil sketches in Devon in 1811, and there appears to be a strong stylistic connection between these sketches and the central landscape of the present work.
In addition to Mercury and Herse, Turner exhibited a number of other classically inspired compositions at the Academy in 1811, Apollo and Python (no.81) which is now in the Tate Gallery, and Chryses (no.332). It was Mercury and Herse, however, which received all the glowing reviews. On April 30th John Taylor, editor of the Sun, wrote “Highly as we all thought of Mr. Turner’s abilities, he has far exceeded all that we or his most partial admirers could expect from his powers. We will not attempt to describe this admirable picture, but we can confidently recommend it to the attention of our readers as one of the most excellent efforts of the artist, in colouring, lightness, truth, elegance, and all the qualities of natural beauty animated by genius, and rendered more interesting by a kind of classical charm which characterises the whole composition…”. Given such a euology it is no surprise to find the painting in the collections of three of the most distinguished connoisseurs and philanthropists of the nineteenth century.