Art Essays

J.M.W. Turner: A Preview

Published February 2, 2013
J. M. W. Turner, The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, 1810, Oil on canvas, 902 x 1200 mm

“Soapsuds and whitewash,” they said. “Portraits of nothing and very like.” In the manner of the Biblical prophet, not without honour, but in his own country, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) spent his entire career being insulted and derided by British commentators.
Although we think of him today as the greatest of all British artists, and the most important landscapist of the Romantic era, Turner had the habit of polarising his audiences. In response to his 1842 painting, Snow Storm – Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth’, one anonymous critic complained: “This gentleman has, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg or currant jelly, – here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff.”
This comment so incensed the 23-year-old John Ruskin that he sat down to write a pamphlet to refute Turner’s detractors. Ruskin got up at 4 am, and hoped to finish by 8, but the “pamphlet” would turn into the five volume, 2,500-page opus, Modern Painters, and occupy the young critic for the next 18 years. It was the most extraordinary book ever devoted to a living painter, written with the intention of demonstrating Turner’s supreme status as an observer and recorder of nature. Not only did Ruskin view his hero as the leading painter of the age, he argued for his superiority to the revered Old Masters.
Turner himself liked to give the impression he was equally indifferent to criticism and flattery. He was secretive by inclination, and in the words of his artist friend, George Jones, had “a jocose love of mystery.”
The mystery that was Turner will be on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide (8 February – 19 May), and then the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, (1 June – 8 September). Turner From the Tate: The Making of a Master, is the first travelling blockbuster of the new year and is timed to coincide with the Adelaide Festival, which runs from 1-17 March.

The exhibition of 100 oils and watercolours, selected by Turner expert, Ian Warrell, is drawn exclusively from the greatest collection of the artist’s work, the Turner Bequest, at Tate Britain. The Bequest consists of 300 oils, and more than 30,000 works on paper, including prints, watercolours, drawings and sketchbooks. Turner left these works to the nation in a poorly drafted will that stipulated they be housed in a purpose-built gallery. This special gallery was never realised, and neither was the other pet project outlined in the will – the founding of a almshouse for “decayed artists”.
Major paintings such as The Fighting Temeraire (1839) and Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) were kept on permanent display at the National Gallery, while other works were scattered throughout Britain.
Turner’s legacy was a sore point in British cultural life, until 1987, when the Tate opened the Clore Gallery as an extension to their Millbank headquarters to provide a permanent home for the Bequest. This still proved controversial, partly because the gallery was named after a financier and philanthropist, Sir Charles Clore, rather than the artist. The building, designed by James Stirling, has been the subject of ferocious criticism that continues to the present day.
The colour schemes, lack of natural light in the exhibition spaces, and the confusing arrangement of rooms are the issues that have attracted most comment. Much of this would be difficult to change without reworking the entire building. On the plus side there are newly improved study facilities, and an attempt to link Turner with the art of today, by inviting a well known contemporary artist to select a show from the collection. At the moment that artist is Latvian-American Vija Celmins.
The critics of the Clore regret the presence of any other artist as it means that less of Turner’s work is on permanent display. Yet the Bequest is so vast it is impossible to hang everything. Most viewers already find the experience of so many Turners in one place to be overwhelming, although it is fascinating to realise the variety of his work. One of the luxuries of a dedicated gallery is that it allows curators to hang sketches and unfinished pieces that might never otherwise be taken out of storage.

Turner, who once penned a long poem titled The Fallacies of Hope, may not have shared the indignation his latter-day admirers feel for the Clore Gallery. While being conscious of his own importance, and hungry for posthumous glory, he also had a fatalistic streak. In such a world-view, something – after so many years – is better than nothing.
In his old age, Turner became increasingly indifferent to the way his paintings were housed and displayed. The sophisticated private gallery in Queen Anne Street he opened in 1822 had become a shambles by the time of his death. The place was filthy, rain poured in through the roof, and the pictures were in a ruinous state.
If this seems like inexplicable behavior from a man who set such a high value on his own work, it points to one of the factors that makes Turner unique, and so much a precursor for the art of the twentieth century. Like Jackson Pollock, a hundred years later, he was more concerned with the act of painting than the result. This led him to touch up oil paintings with watercolour and other incompatible materials, knowing he would impair the longevity of a work in order to achieve a short-term impact.
With the paintings he sent to the annual Royal Academy exhibitions there was an increasing element of performance, as Turner would use the varnishing days before the opening to complete a picture while it hung on the gallery wall. He was also known to alter a canvas at the last minute so it would stand out from other artists’ works. In the most famous incident he strolled into the Academy, added one red dot to a grey canvas, and left, having managed to kill everything in sight. “He has been here,” said John Constable, “and fired a gun.”
There are many anecdotes that testify to Turner’s showmanship and self-confidence, traits that won him enemies as well as fans. Ruskin felt there had never been an artist who understood nature so well, but the influential connoisseur, Sir George Beaumont, complained that Turner’s manner “was neither true nor consistent”. He argued the artist was setting a bad example, and misleading the world of taste, which preferred an idealised view of nature to Turner’s determination to paint exactly what met the eye.
The contradictions in Turner’s manner were established early on. The son of a Covent Garden barber, he made his own success by virtue of skill rather than contacts or refined manners. Turner’s secret shame was his mother, who was schizophrenic and ended her life in Bedlam. It made him particularly sensitive to those critics who looked at his works and said he must be mad.

Whatever genius Turner possessed it was channeled into a program of compulsive, unstinting labour. Whether at home or abroad he was constantly drawing and painting, filling one sketchbook after another. The other pillar of his existence was the Royal Academy, to which he remained true until the day he died, even though it was a source of continuous dispute and bother.
When we read about the insults and attacks Turner endured, this needs to be set against his membership of an organisation that represented the heart of the British art establishment. Turner held a professorship at the Academy, acted as a visitor in the schools, helped with the finances, and came to be seen as a legendary figure by the younger members. By the end of his life Turner may have been more misunderstood than ever, but he was held in awe by his peers, and had accumulated a sizeable fortune.
One of the remarkable aspects of Turner’s career is that he was both successful and well respected during his lifetime, but after his death no British artist followed his lead. The new avant-garde, (had that label been used in those days), were the Pre-Raphaelites, whose precisely delineated forms were the antithesis of Turner’s proto-expressionism. It was left to the French Impressionists to proclaim Turner’s importance, particularly Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, who absorbed his work when they lived in London during the Franco-Prussian war. When Australian artist, Fred McCubbin made his one and only trip to London in 1907, he was equally bowled over by Turner, and tried – with limited success – to imitate his manner.
Nowadays it is conventional to trace a line from Turner to the late works of Monet, to American Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko. With the wisdom of hindsight we see Turner as the father of abstract art, although the near-empty canvases he produced were attempts to capture the effects of mist and light. Norham Castle, Sunrise (c. 1845) is a good example of this radical simplification of forms, in which the bare suggestion of a landscape is bathed in white light.

It is tempting to dwell on these late works which are unlike anything else painted at that time. But to see Turner in his entirety we must acknowledge the years he spent travelling around Britain recording local landmarks such as abbeys and castles. He may have been an innovator but he had a huge respect for the past and its great painters. Despite Ruskin’s dismissal of any predecessors, Turner was enamoured with the Neo-Classical landscapes of Claude Lorrain, who is an obvious influence on a painting such as England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday (1819).
Turner also had a fascination with the history and mythology of Greece and Rome, which often provided a pretext for a spectacular landscape, such as Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1830), in London’s National Gallery; or Regulus (1828), in the touring exhibition, which refers obliquely to a Roman general blinded by the Carthaginians.
Although the early part of his career is dominated by picturesque landscapes, as he grew in confidence and ambition, Turner became a master of the sublime landscape, so prized by the Romantic era. This meant abandoning the peaceful, bucolic scenery in favour of a landscape touched with feelings of awe and terror. The typical subjects of these pictures were the sea and the mountains.
At least one third of Turner’s oeuvre is devoted to the sea, often in the wildest of moods. A good example in this exhibition is A Disaster at Sea (c.1835), which records the wreck of a boat full of female convicts en route to Australia. The Amphitrite barely made it across the channel, being wrecked off the coast of Boulogne, with only three survivors from 136. Turner attempted a painting in emulation of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819), with struggling figures clinging to the wreckage in the amidst of surging waves and storm clouds. Perhaps he began to think it was too close to Gericault’s masterpiece, because the work remained unfinished.
One sees Turner’s ability to convey a completely different mood in another marine picture, Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), which commemorates his fellow Royal Academician, David Wilkie, who died of cholera on the way back from the Holy Land, his remains being committed to the waves. Turner has made dramatic use of black to emphasise the elegiac theme of the painting. The play of darkness and light is clearly symbolic of the transition from life to death, but there is no struggle, no turbulence, no stormy sky.

From this study in stillness one might glance at The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810), a painting that tries to capture the full violence of a mass of snow cascading down a mountainside, scattering everything in its path. Nothing could be further from the Claudean idyll, or the meditative atmosphere of his tribute to Wilkie.
The last time Australian audiences got to see Turner was in 1996, in Canberra and Melbourne. Prior to that, there were shows in 1960, 1961, 1966 and 1985, consisting mostly of watercolours. One could not say Turner is an unfamiliar presence in local galleries, but he is one of those artists who always rewards further study. His voluminous output has generated an industry amongst scholars who have traced his footsteps all over Europe and Great Britain. Others have scrutinised his sources in an effort to separation the truth from the artist’s casual mystifications. We now assume, for instance, that he never actually saw the Temeraire on its final journey, even though the image is unforgettably vivid.
Turner is unlike any other British artist, but is completely British in his stubbornness, and his willingness to simultaneously embrace both tradition and progress. This was a quality foreign travellers often remarked upon, in an effort to account for Victorian England’s industrial might and the stability of its public institutions. Turner demonstrated his Britishness in never deviating from his loyalty to the Royal Academy, while advancing in directions that none of his compatriots could follow. He may have been constantly derided, but he understood, with the insight of a true modernist, that being the cause of scandal and abuse is the surest way for an artist to be noticed.
Turner From the Tate: The Making of a Master:
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, February 8 –  May 19, 2013
The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, June 1 – September 8, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 2013