According to J.M.W. Turner, the secret of being a great artist was “damn’d hard work.” This is difficult to argue against, especially when said by a painter whose pictures came to define the Romantic era – that time when artists stopped being seen as tradesmen and aspired to the role of individual genius. Yet Turner was no mere drudge. He had a vision that lifted him out of his own epoch, and made him a modernist avant la lettre.
Nowadays the genius of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) is beyond dispute. It was just as well recognised during his lifetime, even though he was never short of enemies and detractors. As the son of a Covent Garden barber, Turner had none of the advantages and refinements of those artists who came from more privileged backgrounds. Many were repelled by his gruff manners, slovenly appearance and awkward way of speaking. He was said to be tight-fisted and selfish. He looked after his old dad, but neglected his two illegitimate daughters.
Conversely, there are many stories of Turner’s generosity and good humour. It may be true, as some commentators have said, that he didn’t wish to appear kind – as if that might tarnish the air of mystery he cultivated.
It may have been the roughness of his manners or the confronting nature of his work, but it is a poor reflection on the British establishment that Turner was never given a knighthood or any of the honours doled out to painters of irredeemable mediocrity. He was, from first to last, a square peg in a round hole: a non-conformist in an environment that put a high value on observing all the polite and conventional forms, in art as in life.
One of Turner’s great contradictions is that this willfully rebellious painter was a mainstay of the Royal Academy from the age of 15, when he entered the schools as a penniless young prodigy, to the day of his death. Despite his eccentricities Turner was revered by the younger members of the RA, and had loyal collectors whose patronage helped make him a wealthy man.
Turner was concerned with his own immortality and left a much-disputed will that bequeathed many of his greatest paintings to the state, to be housed in a special building to be known as the Turner Gallery. His wishes were never carried out, as the will was fought over in the courts and the money dispersed among relatives. The state came to inherit a vast body of work, including some 300 oil paintings and up to 37,000 works on paper.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the Tate would open a new wing known as the Clore Gallery, as a purpose-built showcase for the Turner Bequest. The building, designed by James Stirling, who claimed not to like Turner’s work, was fiercely criticised when it opened, and the debates have never died down. Part of the problem was that the gallery was named after the financier and philanthropist, Charles Clore, rather than the artist. The lay-out of rooms, the colour schemes and the lighting have all been roundly condemned.
Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master is drawn almost exclusively from the holdings of the Tate and features many pieces that are usually on display in the Clore gallery. This a simple way to do a touring show, but it also guarantees a certain quality and consistency. Indeed, one must always be a little sceptical about those exhibitions that are proudly announced to have been drawn from private and public collections around the world. There is a hint of desperation in such boasts.
By contrast, this exhibition has been put together by Turner expert, Ian Warrell, to provide a comprehensive overview of the artist’s major themes and preoccupations. Although there may have been more spectacular individual works in the Turner exhibition of 1996, which was seen in Canberra and Melbourne, this is an immensely thoughtful selection. One cannot hope to see Turner in his entirety in the space of about 100 works, but the breadth of coverage is impressive.
The basement galleries of the Art Gallery of South Australia have occasionally felt like a dungeon, but this show is beautifully installed. The rooms have been reconfigured and painted a blue-grey that sets off the pictures in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. One might imagine that such a shade would dull the effect of Turner’s canvases, but it picks up on the blues of his skies and lets his famous bursts of light radiate dramatically. It is a huge improvement on the dull, white blandness of the Clore Gallery.
The show begins with an early view of Oxford painted by Turner when he was thirteen years old. He already had a remarkably sure touch, but within a decade had developed a watercolour technique that enabled him to capture the most delicate nuances of light and shade. He was equally at home in intimate details or sweeping exercises in sublime landscape, such as his views of Mount Snowdon in Wales. In his interior studies of Ely and Durham Cathedrals of 1797-98, he creates a sense of volume in a way that few artists can match.
Even in his early years Turner was a compulsive traveller, willing to drag himself around Great Britain in search of subject matter. When the continent became accessible at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he began a regular series of tours to France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and even Bohemia. Many of his greatest marine pictures were inspired by his crossings of the Channel, while the experience of the Alps provided material for the most dramatic landscapes.
The sublime – which referred to a kind of landscape tinged with feelings of terror and awe – was all the rage, and no British artist, with the possible exception of ‘Mad’ John Martin (1789-1854), pursued this tendency more thoroughly than Turner. The difference was that Martin’s canvases were products of an apocalyptic imagination, whereas Turner’s paintings were notable for their close observation.
When the young John Ruskin took up his pen in defence of the artist he considered the greatest landscapist of all time, it was to stress the uncompromising realism of Turner’s vision. This was a direct response to those critics who complained that Turner’s colours, particularly his use of yellow, were false and tasteless. Ruskin argued that such comments showed the writers had been blinded by their adherence to convention, preferring Claude Lorrain’s ideal landscapes to the actual experience of Nature.
Ruskin was so contemptuous of Claude that he irritated Turner, who was a long-term admirer of the French master. In this exhibition paintings such as England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday (1819) and Dido and Aeneas (c.1805-06) are unthinkable without the Claudean example, with elegant trees forming a frame for the action, while the view recedes to the horizon.
However, there are lots of distinctive, individual touches, with Richmond Hill’ being particularly rich in local detail, from discarded instruments and articles of clothing, to a microscopic cricket match being played in the distance. By the time we arrive at a similar composition, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy (1832), the radical Turner has asserted himself. Now the landscape seems to be melting in a watery mist, with the setting sun picking out vivid pink highlights on the worn stones.
Following Byron’s poem of the same name, Turner has depicted Italy’s faded glories in a twilight setting that warns a British audience not to fall into the same decadent ways. Nevertheless, it is a picturesque decline, as the poet writes:
“Thy wreck a glory and thy ruin graced with an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.”
One sees Turner venturing into uncharted waters with a painting such as The Harbour of Brest: The Quayside and Chateau (1826-28). The picture is bathed in a pale, misty glow, in which we glimpse the indistinct forms of boats and buildings. This strikes one immediately as being true to life, and completely different to anything one expects to find in a painting of that era. It is only one step away from abstraction.
In his late works Turner appears to take that step, although many of these pieces may be classed as “colour beginnings” – evocations of atmosphere to be built up into more finished compositions. There can be no dispute that as he grew older, Turner became ever more disposed to painting strong, bright light. One charts the progress of this obsession in the final rooms of the show, as successive pictures seem to shine searchlights at us. Turner is not the only artist whose pictures grew brighter as his physical powers began to fade, but no-one has ever matched him in the sheer bravura of this final, obstinate outburst of luminosity.
Turner From the Tate: The Making of a Master, Art Gallery of South Australia, February 8 – May 19, 2013
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, June 1 – September 18, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 23, 2013