Turner and the Masters

Ovid Banished from Rome, by Turner

This article was written during the exhibition of “Turner and the Masters”, last year at the Tate Britain.

There is a tiny portrait of J. M. W. Turner at the very end of the Tate Britain’s insightful exhibition Turner and the Masters. It is by Charles West Cope and shows us Turner in 1837 when he was fifty-two years old: a hunched, somewhat scruffy man in his trademark stovepipe hat stands, as he was wont to do, on a platform barely an inch from the canvas whilst awed hangers-on stand at a respectful distance from this son of a barber and a mentally unstable mother. This is a man whom we can well believe never lost his cockney accent. It is also not the picture he would have wished you to remember.

Turner was deeply concerned with securing a place in the history of art: he sought a place in that pantheon of artists whose lineage had been traced by Vasari in his Lives two hundred and some years before Turner’s birth. This concern for posterity led Turner to engage in one of the most sustained public dialogues – and competitions – with those masters past and present until Picasso’s Velasquez studies.

It is this dialogue which the exhibition presents. Turner’s works are paired with those of his predecessors and contemporaries in a parade of one-upmanship complicated by his desire to elevate his beloved landscape to the level of the Academy’s revered Historical painting: to the level of Poussin, Rembrandt, and Claude Lorrain.

As we enter we are struck by the pairing of Willem Van de Velde’s A Rising Gale (1672) and Turner’s pendant Dutch Boats in a Gale (1801). Near identical in scale and composition (Turner’s is a mirror image) these two paintings serve to highlight the painters’ competing conceptions of clarity. Van de Velde’s vessels are accurate and recognisable depictions of craft of the time depicted in a smooth and balanced style with a clarity of line and form which one would expect in an 17th Century Dutch seascape.

Still in his mid-twenties, Turner’s is a rougher – which is not to say inferior – handling in every sense. His perennial concern with light and texture creates an altogether more menacing work. Gradations of tone from grey to burnt umber in the encroaching storm cloud promise a far rougher sea than the already disturbed surface on which the vessels sit, elevated as they are on a fleeting pedestal of grey, green and white water, haloed in spray and flinching from the gale. As with Van de Velde, the contrast is with the larger ships in the distance, more able to weather the rough seas than those vulnerable craft in the foreground. Yet Turner’s ships are mere silhouettes in the distance, Van de Velde’s are identifiable in terms of class and nationality. That indistinctness would culminate in the swirling vortices of steam and light of Snow Storm (exhib. 1842). Already, in 1801, Turner’s interest is not clarity in the Academic sense of a clearly painted and composed event representing some distilled generality. His is a more fugitive concern: on the one hand, he sought to learn all that the masters could teach; and on the other hand, he sought to transcend those masters by immersing himself in their techniques and subject matter. Only then might he rise above their oeuvres to his own pictorial innovation and, not incidentally, a place in the history of art.

That desire to shape, and to be seen to shape, the present and future of British art led to some of Turner’s most mediocre work. This is where Turner and the Masters is at its most interesting. Turner repeatedly went back to the subjects and styles with which he was least at home in an attempt to increase and publicly demonstrate his artistic range, his talent and claim to Master. The exhibition is full of attempts to emulate Raphael, Veronese, Rembrandt, David Wilkie, and David Teniers in pieces which in scale and subject matter simply fail. One work echoing Titian’s The Madonna and Child in a Landscape (1535–40) is Turner’s attempt at Biblical figurative painting, The Holy Family (1803). Its dour tones contribute to a particularly unremarkable work: Turner never could get people right and his attempts on Rembrandt follow a similar pattern.

Yet it was to Claude Lorrain, and to his seaport formula, that Turner would repeatedly return. Here Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) is hung with Turner’s (larger) Dido building Carthage (1815). Claude’s is a polished and balanced work, filled with a civilizing light of even tone which illuminates the framing classical porticoes, columns, statues and galleons of a silvered world – the stage for the Queen herself to descend to her bark. Like Van de Velde, Claude’s light reveals rather than occludes.

However, for all his infatuation Turner’s light and form were never that of Claude’s. His is quite a different handling of paint. He consistently complicates Claude’s compositions in terms of structure, tone and texture. Turner’s Carthage consists of far sharper contrasts of light and shadow: one never sees a darkened column in Claude. Turner’s temple and tree on the right side of the canvas echo Claude’s but in no way feel as neat or inorganic: they punctuate the scene. His sea port plunges into a hazy distance, eschewing Claude’s reassuring terrestrial foreground for sunlit and richly textured waters that seem to extend straight through the viewer. That water is surrounded by a varied and non-linear landscape of jutting rock and confused construction whose very complexity challenge the purity of line and recession in Claude; and which lead, in Turner, to that far richer and more varied texture of the painted surface.

The sea always held a deep fascination for Turner and one can’t help but see a tumultuous maritime fluidity in the brushwork of his mature sea- and landscapes, filled as they are with what Hazlitt had called “the first chaos of the world” in 1817; a fluidity that, in works such as Regulus (exh. 1837) and the frankly apocalyptic Mercury sent to admonish Aeneas (1850) seems now to presage that of the Impressionists in their lambent dissolution of form. Turner has pushed beyond the Grand Style of the Academy to an iridescent and rougher – albeit still Arcadian in many respects – naturalism. Never a realist, what Rowan Williams has called “the terror of light” fills these canvases with the sublime grandeur of Romantic nature.

There are those who will argue that Turner, especially toward the end of his life, was more and more an abstract artist avant la lettre: a painter of works only the Twentieth Century could understand and own. Yet no artist is ever anything but of their time and Turner’s paradoxes are those of the age in which he lived: a fact wonderfully demonstrated by this exhibition. His was an Eighteenth Century sensibility – he was twenty-five at the turn of the Nineteenth – and the Grand Style stands as a conceptual if not a technical core of the practice of a man who entered the Royal Academy Schools at the impressionable age of fourteen and who had been saturated by the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

In seeking to engage and surpass the Masters in the way he did Turner was, consciously or not, helping to inaugurate a critical approach to the traditions of art which ignored national and historical boundaries. It was his immersion in tradition that allowed Turner ultimately to transcend it. Such competition is marked by a self-conscious anxiety which feels distinctly modern.

That respectful competiveness took a darker – perhaps, to us, amusing – turn in Turner’s desire to destroy the impact of his contemporaries’, his adversaries’, works as they hung beside his own on the walls of the Royal Academy. His exploits on the Academy’s “varnishing days” – opportunities to add finishing touches to works once hung – are legendary. One famous example is revived in the Tate’s hanging together Turner’s Helvoetsluys and Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge: exactly as they were arranged at the Royal Academy in 1832. Turner’s canvas is a coolly-toned maritime scene, awash with pale sunlight glinting on the chop and spray, populated by yachts reminiscent of Dutch Boats in a Galein happier times. Constable’s work, on the other hand, is full of colourful pomp and pageantry, glittering barges, and cannon-salutes, much more consciously reminiscent of Canaletto’s Grand Canal. It is said that, on seeing the two works hung together, Turner realised his work would be outgunned by the grandeur of Constable’s scene: he simply added a small red highlight to his canvas in the form of a buoy in the foreground. With one stroke he made all that pageantry seem gross. Constable is said to have remarked to a friend: “Turner has been here and fired a gun.”

That portrait by Cope was painted only one year earlier than a very different and much larger picture by John Linnell. The contrast is striking and illuminates the paradoxes of Turner’s life and Romantic legacy. This is Turner as he would wish to be remembered: Romantic and otherworldly, he stares off into the distance, an artist – a gentleman – contemplating the transcendent. Ruskin called him “the painter and poet of the day”. This is decidedly not a man to whom we would attribute the exploits of the varnishing day. It culminated in his attempt to contrive apotheosis through a bequest of his work to the National Gallery in his will. The will included the request that two of his paintings should hang alongside works of Claude: a challenge and a presumptuous – considering his reputation was largely based on his watercolours at the time – desire to stand alongside an accepted master. What all this shows is that Turner never really transcended the hierarchy and structure of the Academy except in pictorial terms: he remained a barber’s son looking to make his mark on the history of art. That, at least, he most certainly did.

Hazlitt wrote further of Turner that “All is without forms and void. Some one said of his landscapes that they were pictures of nothing, and very like.” Turner might have anachronistically replied, in the words of Paul Valery, “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.” Although, of course, being Turner, he would probably have changed the order of the words and shifted a comma or two

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