By Simon Holberton
Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851) is that rare thing among the English – a world class painter. This is not the place to go into why there have been so few – though a century of successive waves of determined iconoclasm (1550-1650) probably made it prudent for the creatively inclined to put pen to paper, rather than brush to canvas – but to celebrate Turner from the Tate, an exhibition at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra until 8 September.
Turner was a precocious talent – he was just 15 years old when he exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy – and his abilities were of the first rank. He was master of print making – his Liber Studiorum is a monument to the etcher’s art – a superb watercolourist (a pity Melbourne’s Red Righi was not loaned for the show), and one of the greatest painters of his day. If he never quite mastered the human figure he made up for that deficiency with sheer talent in the application of paint to render land, sea, sky and atmosphere. He took painting to the edge of abstraction and lingered there, unafraid.
This is an intelligent exhibition. It sensibly takes a thematic approach to Turner’s oeuvre, given the volume of his output and the exigencies of distance and generosity. Appropriately it begins with Turner and the sublime – one of the most important ideas that concerned English artists of his day. By the time Turner was born artists and writers had been talking about the ‘sublime’ for nearly 100 years, spurred by the discovery of an ancient treatise, supposedly by Longinus, on the subject. Jonathan Richardson in 1714 said the sublime was something that “must strike vehemently upon the Mind”; Edmund Burke wrote an influential inquiry into the “sublime and beautiful” in which he sought to distinguish the essential difference between the two, “terror” and “smoothness” ; while, by the 1790s writers had put the two back together and the Rev William Gilpin, who wrote about the ‘picturesque’ in a series of three essays which Turner carried with him on his early travels, would declare: “when we talk…of a sublime object we also understand that is is also beautiful.”
Turner travelled extensively throughout Britain in the search of the sublime and beautiful whether in Northumberland, recording the dramatic settings for castles, such as Dunstanburgh Castle from the South (1797-8) or, in Looking Down a Deep Valley towards Snowden, with an Army on the March (1799-1800) and underlining the insignificance of man such a majestic setting. The sublime and beautiful remained a leit motif running through Turner’s oeuvre, from a picture like The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grissons (1810) which captures the sheer force, and terror, of the avalanche with its mass of ice and snow smashing rocks before it, to his Disaster at Sea (c. 1835) which represents the sinking of the Amphitrite, a ship carry women prisoners en route to Australia, in a boiling, tempestuous, rain lashed sea.
Turner’s dedication to landscape did not, however, mean that he avoided the task of all painters who aspired to the first rank, that of ‘history painting’. Indeed, Turner was in active dialogue (and competition) with the great painters of the past in the depiction of subjects from the bible and classical literature, especially Virgil, and he had set his sights on the painter who had virtually created the idyllic, arcadian style in which to depict such subjects, Claude Lorrain, a Frenchman who had lived most of his working life in Rome during the middle years of the 17th century. In the Canberra show is Turner’s Dido and Aeneas from 1805-06 depicting Dido, Aeneas and the Tyrian court on a bank high above Carthage in the middle distance. The tonality is cooler than the honied warmth of Claude but the composition is wholly consonant with the latter’s style. More Claudian still is Regulus from 1828, a baffling depiction of the story of the blinding of a Roman general by the Cathaginians which takes as its inspiration a Claude in the Uffizi. Charles Eastlake, and early directors of London’s National Gallery, said it was “more Italian than Italy itself”. Virgil’s Anead was to prove a constant source of inspiration for Turner right up until his death in 1851. It was the source for a pair pictures he bequeathed London’s National Gallery with the proviso, still adhered to, they be hung alongside two by Claude. (The vast bulk of Turner’s bequest was subsequently transferred to the Tate Gallery.)
As Turner aged his painting became (to our eyes) more abstract. To his contemporaries the pictures were ‘indistinct’. When told an American collector had complained about this, Turner replied: “You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte.” Waves breaking at Margate (1840) is a good example. Sand merges with sea which merges with sky which in turn merges with the, dare one say, indistinct buildings of Margate on the horizon. This would have caused a stir in Paris in 1890 let alone London in 1840. The surface of the picture is obsessively worked over, almost like the picture was brought into being through struggle; so many of his pictures have such characteristics. Burial at Sea (1842) commemorates the burial of Sir David Wilkie, a Scottish painter, who died of cholera after a Middle East tour. It is a moving tribute to a colleague; black ships on a calm sea in front of a setting sun. The sky a riot of slashing brush strokes of white.
The last word on this fascinating exhibition should go to John Ruskin, that towering Victorian intellectual, taste maker and champion of the man he regarded as the greatest landscape painter of all time.
“Turner, and Turner only, would follow and render on the canvas that mystery of decided lines, that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible and inextricable richness which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat, which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.”