I have always been a bit disappointed in art books about painters, or indeed TV documentaries. They often don’t seem to be much interested in the pictures themselves, more in the career, life ‘n’ times and peccadillos of the atrist. So have decided to review some famous artists I admire from a painter’s viewpoint, which is more focused on the work itself and how it was done. The other thing is to be realistic about the quality of the work. Just because an artist is famous and in the art history books does not mean all his or her work is admirable. In some ways the pictures where an artist misses the mark are more informative to other painters than the triumphs are, though we all love those too of course. I am I have to say a little nervous about setting out on such a course as anyone might protest, “What does he know about it?”. Well, a critic could be accused in the same way, so I could say to them, “You don’t paint yourself so what do you know?”. For myself I think both viewpoints are worthwhile. Any painter will tell you however that the best praise and the most painful criticism come from other painters especially if you admire them. Lots of people have admired my watercolours, but when Trevor Chamberlain told me he liked them I walked for a few days 6in above the ground!
Todays victim is JMW Turner. I am not going to rehash his life story, you may find a quick precis of it on Wikipedia. Turner and all his works and much more are here on the wonderful collection put on line by the Tate Gallery London: Paintings.
We first see Turner in the company of Tom Girtin, copying watercolours in the collection of a certain Dr Monroe. Some of these were by Cozens, below are some paintings by Turner, Cozens and Girtin so you can see the similarities and differences.
John Robert Cozens
Turner after Cozens
Here are the dynamic duo Turner and Girtin apparently working on the same picture!
The sheer quantity and quality of Turner’s output is a little forbidding. He produced over 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, 30,000 paper works. Many of the 30,000 paper works in sketchbooks are also in watercolour, which means that primarily Turner was a watercolour painter. A lifetime total for oils of 550 (including many unfinished under paintings) is really not very many for such a long lived artist.
The art historical view, touted by all the books on him that I have seen, is a steady progression from detailed and tight, to inchoate sweeps of colour verging on abstraction. On closer examination however this is considerably less than the truth. By careful choice of paintings throughout his career I could easily make the opposite case, by choosing indistinct early works and finely wrought later ones. The truth is Turner painted loose impressions and colour notes from early on and detailed finished works right up until the end of his life, or at least until his eyesight began to fail. The progression toward the abstract is something I feel just did not happen in the way it is often portrayed. It is maybe possible that Turner came value his more atmospheric paintings as a truer representation of the sublime; but many of the works that are touted as Turner moving towards abstraction are unfinished works, only underpaintings, that were intended to be revisited.
He painted from quite early on in the manner where he laid in the general tone and palette of the painting and then drew out the finished work by resolving, reworking and leaving until he considered it finished. This is a very common way of working for artists from ancient to modern. To exhibit these as finalised works as galleries do is I feel to misrepresent the artist, his work and his intentions. I have seen colour tests on the backs of sheets put forward in catalogues as examples of how far Turner was ahead of his times and presaging the arrival of modern art.
Next are a few finished and unfinished works from various times in his life. The number of unfinished examples from later on is larger obviously, early on he could not afford to leave expensive canvasses lying fallow!
This is from 1805.
Then from 1825.
Here we are in 1850, see he was trying to be Marc Rothko his whole life! To compare next are two finished and exhibited works from early and late.
This was painted when he was in his twenties in 1796.
This is from 1842 and about as abstract as he gets in exhibited works. I don’t however think that his intention is abstraction. Everything makes good
pictorial sense. He is just trying to paint the wild confusing power of the sea as best he can. You cannot see the ship distinctly because as Turner well knew
in such conditions it was truly the case that only vague glimpses would be seen.
Why is his art so misrepresented in books, exhibitions and documentaries? It is basically I think because art historians have a story they wish to tell about art moving in a tidy progression from representation through abstract to modernism and the story of Turner’s work has to be bowdlerised to fit that story, rather than the actual story of his work and progress, which I think is really quite different. I cannot somehow imagine Turner reading these dubious tales of his artistic progression and recognising much of his own artistic career. The whole arc of art moving from “traditional” to “modern” is mostly a fantasy and not, as far as I can see, born out by the painted works that history records. Turner, poor soul, has been chosen long after his death to be the cornerstone of this art historical fairy tale.
The result is that we do a tremendous disservice to one of our greatest artists. In one fell swoop we make him both more and less than he really was. The sad thing is that modernism and its related offshoots have a perfectly respectable genealogy that goes back to the earliest of times, but it is on a different branch to Turner and earlier western painting. To claim him as a direct antecedent of modernism is rather like me claiming that hippos are my direct ancestor, we share ancestors in the past, but we are not on the same timeline or grazing the same pastures. Not that he didn’t influence later abstract painters, just that he trod an entirely different road.
Turner was pretty precocious and improved rapidly from his juvenile style emulating earlier painters to a confident and accurate draughts man. The two examples below are only 5 years apart and both of his home city Oxford.
Oxford in about 1787 so he is 12 years old.
Here he is in 1792 five or so years later at seventeen or eighteen.
I suspect, though it is hard to confirm dates that it is the influence and friendship of Tom Girtin, or rather the competition of two young men striving in the same arena that produces this huge step forwards. Also whether in company or by himself Turner starts to fill his sketchbooks with finely observed drawings.
This fine and accomplished sketch is from 1796.
This seascape, a subject he would paint his whole life, is from 1796 too. Not bad for a twenty one year old!
By 1806 he is producing masterly topographical renderings in watercolour.
This is Morpeth from around 1806.
He is also painting ambitious oils for exhibition such as this painting from 1805.
This fine seascape hangs in the National Gallery London.
We also see him absorbing the influences of earlier painters as in this shaky attempt at a Titian from 1803 after visiting the Louvre.
A good try, but not really convincing!
Another influence is popular mythological and biblical epic paintings which were very much in vogue. Here is the Deluge from 1805.
We cannot leave out his other influence that was to last his whole life. Claude Lorraine inspired a great swathe of his work, here is an early one from 1806 of Abingdon.
It is from Claude he gets his love of that suffusing light that makes the whole picture seem to glow. Unfortunately he also gets a penchant for scattering classical figures in various states of undress scampering about. I chose the picture above as they are thankfully replaced by cattle a la Aelbert Cuyp.
What is often passed over by writers and critics is that the majority of Turner’s work in his lifetime was spent producing reference paintings and drawings that were to be engraved and sold as editions. To this end he undertook a punishing series of travels to the far corners of Britain and far across Europe. The large oils were only a small part of his output, but important nonetheless as a means of self promotion and the gaining of prestige, which in turn drove sales of his engravings. Here is one of Isleworth with the sketches probably done around 1806 through various stages to the final engraving.
These two are from his sketchbooks and probably done en plein air on the same day.
Here is the compositional drawing worked up from the sketches.
Then a sepia wash drawing as a guide for the engraver.
Finally here is the finished engraving sold as an edition.
Whether Turner coloured these entirely himself I doubt, I dare say it was quite a production line with Turner plus assistants beavering away to get the work done as quickly as possible.
For his research Turner developed an amazing technique of noting down subjects and things that interested him. His process in about 1830, 25 years later, is pretty consistent, below is Alnwick.
This sketch is typical, he just notes down the salient features, the mood and colouring would probably come from another sketch possibly not even
of the same subject.
On his return or perhaps in a moment of rest in between travelling he would work up a watercolour version.
Here is the final result, a steel engraving this time I think.
Below is an early sketch of lighting and mood. He could have referred to these sketches at any stage in the future to give the bare bones of a subject a dramatic and realistic mood.
Towards the end of his life Turners eyesight begins to fail, and from the late 1830′s onwards his colouring becomes uncertain with him tending to paint too brightly. Here is a quote from Richard Liebreich writing in 1872 defending Turner.
“According to my opinion, his manner is exclusively the result of a change in his eyes, which developed itself during the last twenty years of his life. In consequence of it the aspect of Nature gradually changed for him, while he continued in an unconscious, I might almost say in a naïve manner, to reproduce what he saw. And he reproduced it so faithfully and accurately, that he enables us distinctly to recognize the nature of the disease of his eyes, to follow its development step by step, and to prove by an optical contrivance the correctness of our diagnosis. By the aid of this contrivance we can see Nature under the same aspect as he saw and represented it.”
Another more recent assessment is by James McGill, as reported by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian in 2003.
“Mr McGill is convinced Turner was slightly colour-blind, and this particularly affected his perception of red and blue. “The blues are all wrong, either too dark or too bright, and the reds get stronger and stronger, which is exactly what you would expect. And I have no doubt that later in life he had untreated cataracts, which would have made the centre of his field of vision very blurred, with some objects at the edges in focus – and with exactly that effect of dazzling shimmering light we see in the paintings.”
“With the type of cataract which I believe Turner had, it is quite possible to see foggily through the cataract, until you are look ing directly into bright light. Then you’re in trouble, because all you can see is the dazzle – and that’s what we get with Turner.”
Here are his glasses. which were tested to determine how Turner’s eyesight had decayed.
Below is a very late picture which shows his sad decline.
Below is how this might have seemed to the painter as he worked.
This is only a rough guess but it gives you an idea of how heartbreaking it must have been for a man like Turner to have his eyesight decline.
It has alas been also the case with other painters that decaying eyesight and the decline of old age are taken as a move towards abstraction and presented as a step forwards. Degas and Monet have been used in this way too. I find it, I have to say, as an insult to these great men, and a cruel and insincere act to use their sad decline in old age to prop up a poorly conceived and simplistic view of art history.
We shall leave Joseph Mallord William Turner on a high Here is his own favourite of all his works The Fighting Temeraire, this is often represented as the new age replacing the old, which I don’t disagree with, but I think he is also thinking, as in another similar picture, of the death of his great friend and fellow painter David Wilkie.
The images of Turner’s works in this article are copyright by the Tate Gallery London.