Talking Turner

1st November 2008

JMW Turner used watercolour painting to challenge accepted notions of what constituted great art at the turn of the 19th century. A new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery – Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld – reminds of his genius. Jack Watkins profiles this revolutionary artist.

It’s been said that if a time-pressed London visitor only had space in their itinerary for one gallery visit they should make straight for the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art. These days it’s to be found in Somerset House, having moved here from its cramped, homely quarters in Woburn Square in 1990, but it retains the feel of a personal collection, small, well-arranged, and containing a superbly varied and representative array of pictures, from Old Masters through to the Post-Impressionists.

The Courtauld had a number of works by Turner which were augmented last year by nine magnificent paintings as part of a bequest of fifty-one watercolours, the gallery’s biggest single addition in decades. The legacy of the late Dorothy Scharf, one of the leading watercolour collectors of her time, these form the basis of a new exhibition which ranges across Turner’s whole career, from an early view of Avon Gorge, executed when he was 16, to the monumental watercolours of his maturity, and on to the famously experimental later work. There’s also the bonus of the opportunity of looking at his landscapes in the context of other leading contemporaries, such as Richard Parkes Bonington, and Francis Towne, and a remarkably expressionist later work by Edward Lear.

The central attraction, of course, is Turner, this fascinating, rough-hewn titan of Regency Art who seems to have repelled as many people with his uncouth manner, and nakedly mercenary approach to business, as he thrilled others with the range and bravura of his output. At a time when appearances mattered more than they do today, Turner seemed at first to have little going for him. A young Eugene Delacroix made a special visit from Paris in the 1820s to look at his work, and went back remarking that Turner looked more like a farmer than a painter. Another observer, sounding like a character from Jane Austen, remarked: “The man must be loved for his work; for his person is not striking.” But, as the Courtauld reminds us, Turner never allowed this, or a modest background – his father was a wig maker and barber – to hold him back, and he seems to have designed his whole career with an eye to achieving fame and fortune.

Turner snr’s barber shop was in Covent Garden, near the Royal Academy of Art, and he would proudly display his son’s precocious watercolours in the window. The young artist keenly studied the techniques of earlier topographical artists such as Paul Sandby and Edward Dayes, examples of whose meticulously rendered landscapes can be seen in the exhibition. Turner was just 14 when he enrolled as a student at the Academy, and 16 when he exhibited his first watercolour there. He quickly realized that by getting work hung at the annual exhibition he was putting himself at the centre of the most significant showcase in the London art scene, obtaining the optimum positioning for attracting wealthy patrons.

He also saw the value of prints for disseminating his art to a wider public audience. Even in his teens he was adopting a practice that he would continue for much of his life, travelling around the country sketching, and then producing accurate watercolours (such as Chepstow Castle, painted when he was only 18, but already providing evidence of his technical mastery) which would then be used as models for engravings in magazine and books. The exhibition contains watercolours he designed for book illustrations, including works so characteristic of his Romantic style as Colchester, Essex.

What he achieved in these watercolours, building upon the efforts of men of an earlier generation such as John Robert Cozens (whose sublime A Ruined Fort near Salerno warns against attributing early exploitation of light and climactic effects for expressionist ends to Turner alone) was a breaking down of the old notion that landscape and marine painting was somehow an inferior form of art to ‘history painting’. His stirring compositions, in which nature’s forms seemed to dematerialise and become furnaces of blazing, golden light, blurred that tired-out hierarchical division. The scale of these watercolours, and the tonal range he was able to express, challenged another long-held assumption that the medium could never match that of oil painting.

In 1802, he made his first foray to the continent, heading for the Swiss Alps. Doubtless he was aware that not only would this feed his own appetite for raw, elemental situations – storm-lashed skies, stupendous mountains, and gushing streams – but that it would prove a fruitful source of material for the sort of awe-inspiring views that were devoured by his eager public. Once the Napoleonic Wars ceased in 1815, he undertook annual visits to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, his method being to sketch rapidly on the spot in such detail that later he could easily transpose the material into his watercolours. His accumulated library of sketchbooks gave him a massive collection, translatable, time and again, into sets of engravings that broadened his appeal well beyond the immediate art connoisseur market.

Perhaps this was just as well, for at the height of his fame a number of critics and patrons were caviling at the ‘carelessness’ of his pictures, or the fact that they required too much of the imagination. Benjamin West, president of the Academy, himself a purveyor of stiffly heroic history paintings, described a series of Turner’s works showing the landscapes around the Thames as ‘crude blotches’. We should be careful not to scoff. This was still the age when the ‘finished’ look was highly valued, in the belief that a picture should be an exact representation of that which it purported to show. The allegory, or symbolism, was in the idea it might represent, not within the technique with which the artist executed the piece.

In later years, Turner’s continental expeditions drew ever more experimental responses to the light and the grandeur of the landscapes, as in works here like Rome, from San Pietro in Montorio, and Mont Blanc from above Courmayeur, in which he exaggerated the steepness of the mountain slopes for dramatic effect.
As Turner grew older he became more concerned with his own mortality and On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen is a work of great foreboding. For the introspective works inspired by the landscapes of the Kent coast, he found a champion in John Ruskin, whose writing ensured that he would go down in the annals as England’s greatest painter of watercolours.

Ruskin described Margate Pier as a ‘study of storm and sunshine… entirely magnificent…’. He was captivated by Dawn after the Wreck, which showed, he surmised, the morning after a boat had gone down, all hands lost, leaving only a solitary, petrified dog. There it stands, its head aloft, howling and shivering as the sun comes up on the horizon. The image must stand alongside the greatest of Turner’s later works, as a symbol of the hopelessness of man and all living things, against the omniscient forces of nature.

Runs to 25 January; see for more information.

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