Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain


Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  With his fleeting brushwork, fascination with light and blurry finish, had Turner beaten Pissarro and Monet at their own game and conceived Impressionism?  In 1906, Tate exhibited for the first time, a selection of Turner’s later oil sketches and unfinished canvases: but rather than the inferior work of a man in “a state of senile decrepitude”, as one nineteenth century biographer wrote, these paintings were hailed as examples of the artist’s prophetic genius.  When in 1926 a new wing was added to the gallery to house its modern and foreign art collection, Turner’s later works were positioned both physically and, by implication, artistically, as the bridge between the old and the new.  The artist, at least from the 1830s, had been repackaged as a Modern Painter, rather than a painter who was modern for his time.  And once historical context is tossed aside, a critic or viewer is free to look at and interpret a work as he likes.  With Turner, his later, unfinished canvases may, to a point, share some characteristics of Impressionism; that is not to say, however, that the works are Impressionist or that the intentions of this early nineteenth century artist mirrored the intentions of the Impressionists.


Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), J M W Turner, © The National Gallery, London

When in the 1960s abstract art took New York by storm, once again Turner’s later works were targeted.  The 1966 MOMA exhibition, Turner: Imagination and Reality, displayed a selection of late, unfinished works dressed up (or down?) in modern frames and in a minimalist, contemporary setting.  Here again was Turner the painter-prophet, creating abstract pictures over a hundred years before everyone else.  The following year, when Tate rehung its Turner collection, the curators adopted the same approach: new frames, and an emphasis on the artist’s later, incomplete works, of which – thanks to the Turner Bequest – there were plenty.  But if Turner himself did not view a piece as finished, can he be reinterpreted, even reinvented, on the back of it?  And the fact that these ‘modern’ works were produced late in the artist’s career, does not necessarily make them more radical than pieces he painted before 1835.   It would be too easy to say that Turner’s output followed a clear-cut trajectory over the course of his career, from traditional to modern.  Many of his early works were just as innovative as his later pieces and likewise, as the current exhibition establishes, much of his later work reflected backwards, reprising earlier periods.

The Turner displays at the Tate Gallery 1967 © Tate

The Turner displays at Tate Gallery 1967
© Tate

Turner turned sixty in 1835, but for the next ten years he continued to spend the summer and autumn abroad, collecting material which he would then work up in time for the Royal Academy exhibition the following spring.  From 1841 to 1844 he took his summers in Switzerland, where he sketched many of the same scenes he had captured during his first stay there in 1817.  His watercolour of Bamborough Castle (1837), on show in a public exhibition for the first time since 1889, also harked back to an earlier phase in the artist’s life and is based on drawings Turner had made during a trip to Northumberland forty years previously.

Bamborough Castle (1837), J M W Turner

Bamborough Castle (1837), J M W Turner, Private Collection

It was inevitable that Mike Leigh would choose one of Turner’s famous varnishing day performances for a scene in his new film (which, in a happy coincidence for Tate organisers, is released on 31 October).  Like the eighty year old Matisse with his shears, Turner was fast, turning one version of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) from rough underpainting to finished product during the course of a day at the Royal Academy.  Turner had seen the fire for himself the previous year, watching the flames from a boat on the Thames.  Seven years later in 1841, the painter witnessed another fire, this time at the Tower of London, an event which he recorded in nine rapid watercolour studies, until recently thought to depict the 1834 blaze (A Fire at the Tower of London (1841)).

Burning of the Houses of Lords

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835), J M W Turner, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

A Fire at the Tower of London (1841), J M W Turner, © Tate

A Fire at the Tower of London (1841), J M W Turner, © Tate

It was during the 1841 fire that Turner asked the Duke of Wellington if he could enter the Tower for a closer look.  The Duke rejected Turner’s request; but in 1842, if we are to take the artist’s unreliable word, the captain of the steamboat The Ariel was more accommodating, allowing the sixty-seven year old to be lashed to the ship’s mast during a snow storm.  “I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did. But no one had any business to like the picture,” he wrote.

And like it they did not, with one reviewer describing Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), as nothing but “soapsuds and whitewash”.  Turner was upset by the criticism; but he seemed to expect as much.  Snow Storm, with its “hopeless, desolate, uncontrasted greys” (as described by Ruskin), its melding of sea and sky, and central swirling vortex, was outside the comfort zone of nineteenth century critics and viewers.  “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. Where the steamboat is—where the harbour begins, or where it ends—which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel…are matters past our finding out,” wrote the Athenaeum’s review.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (exhibited 1842),  J M W Turner, Tate

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (exhibited 1842), J M W Turner, © Tate

Noah's Sacrifice (exhibited 1847), Daniel Maclise, Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery)

Noah’s Sacrifice (exhibited 1847), Daniel Maclise, Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery)

A painting by Daniel Maclise – Noah’s Sacrifice (exhibited 1847) – hangs among Turner’s own paintings from the time.  Forget, for a moment, what came later: here is Turner in context.  Because if this smooth photographic realism was what the early Victorians were used to and expected, then it is no wonder they were baffled by the Turner’s later works.  In 1851 the Athenaeum’s obituary for Turner advised its readers, “Whoever wishes to possess a single Turner will if he has true taste take care to secure, if he can, a picture of the period before 1820.”  And yet there was something about the artist’s work which, no matter how perplexing, was attractive.  After The Sun of Venice Going to Sea was exhibited in 1843, a critic who wrote how it was “pitiable to see art so deformed into madness,” could not help but comment on the “glorious general effect” of the painting.

Victorian clarity of line was replaced with a mass of colour and brushstroke.  In fact Turner’s colour and light, for which he is now known and loved, was much of the problem.  It was the patron Sir George Beaumont who said, “A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown.”  Years of darkening varnish had left the overall tone of Renaissance and Baroque paintings brown in hue, and it was to this that contemporary painters such as David Wilkes and William Mulready – although not, as a trip to the V&A will soon show, Constable – aspired, even applying a darkening glaze to their finished paintings.  “The Last time the gentle reader received a black eye at school, and for a moment after the delivery of the blow, when flashes of blue, yellow and crimson lightning blazed before the ball… he saw something not unlike the Moses of Mr Turner,” wrote William Thackeray upon seeing Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (exhibited 1843).

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), J M W Turner Tate

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), J M W Turner, © Tate

Turner’ reaction? To retreat to the studio where he could do as he pleased. By the mid 1840s he had made enough cash that he no longer needed to tout himself out for commissions and, in any case, by 1846 he had moved to Chelsea with his companion Mrs Booth, and it was she who paid the bills.  Here he could experiment at will, beginning paintings which he often never finished; and so by the time he died, there was a stack of rough investigations of colour and form, for later critics, art historians and curators to play with.

This was a tricky exhibition to stage, less so from a logistical point of view – there are a handful of impressive loans such as The J. Paul Getty Museum’s Modern Rome (1839), but most works are from Tate’s own collection – as from an organisational perspective.  Where to start with a complex character such as Turner working during a complex phase of his life?  The display’s thematic arrangement, however, successfully unfurls the artist and his preoccupations during these final years.  And by focusing on Turner himself, rather than Turner-the-this and Turner-the-that, one gets the sense that it is not just the artist who has been set free, but also the viewer.

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino (1839), J M W Turner,  The J. Paul Getty Museum

Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839), J M W Turner, © The J. Paul Getty Museum

Late Turner – Painting Set Free

Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries, 10 September– 25 January 2014

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