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The Greatest


by James Hamilton
Random House, 461 pp., $35.00

Turner’s Britain

Catalog of the exhibition by James Hamilton
an exhibition at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England,November 7, 2003–February 8, 2004
London: Merrell, 208 pp., $59.95

Turner and Venice

Catalog of the exhibition by Ian Warrell
an exhibition at Tate Britain, London,October 9, 2003–January 11, 2004; and the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, February 15–May 30, 2004.
London: Tate, 280 pp., £29.99 (paper)

Turner: The Late Seascapes

Catalog of the exhibition by James Hamilton
an exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, June 14–September 7, 2003;the Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England, October 31, 2003–January 25, 2004; and the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, Scotland, February 19–May 23, 2004.
Yale University Press/ Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 162 pp., $39.95


J.M.W. Turner was born in London in 1775, the only son of a Covent Garden barber and a mother so unstable that she was to die in a lunatic asylum unvisited and unmourned by her husband and child. A prodigy, Turner first trained as an architectural draftsman before the Royal Academy schools accepted him as a student at the age of fourteen. Although he had little formal education and may have suffered from some form of dyslexia, these very disadvantages, coupled with a powerful intellect and raging curiosity, turned him into a voracious autodidact. At the Academy, he was instructed in the rudiments of his art through the academic practice of drawing first from antique casts, and then from life. The president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, taught his students to differentiate between the hierarchies in art, from history painting, the most prestigious, on down to landscape, portraiture, and lowly genre scenes. The importance of these teachings for Turner’s later artistic development can hardly be overstated. As a landscape painter, Turner absorbed the idea that a great artist idealizes nature, transcending the particular to express a general truth. For Sir Joshua, the purpose of a great work of art was to appeal to the imagination and not simply to the eye. Turner learned to look at art through the lens of old masters such as Claude, Poussin, and Gaspard Dughet.

But there is another side to Turner’s art. As a boy and as a young man he roamed the streets of London, visiting the panoramas and dioramas that were then a feature of late-eighteenth-century popular entertainment. Influenced by such spectacles, the seventeen-year-old used his art the way a journalist uses his pen, to report on current events. This happens as early as his watercolor study The Pantheon, the morning After the fire, an “eyewitness account” of the destruction of a famous London theater in January 1792. Though a finished work of art and exhibited at the Royal Academy in that year, it is so immediate and realistic that Turner even shows the icicles formed where water from the firemen’s hoses dripped off the building. Side by side with natural spectacles such as avalanches and storms at sea, Turner never lost his interest in recording dramatic current events, whether he worked from newspaper accounts, as in his Battle of Trafalgar of 1806, or was actually present as history was being made, as in his two oil paintings Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, exhibited in 1835 (see illustration on page 22).

Turner spent a lifetime filling his notebooks with quick sketches, some of which he turned into finished watercolors back in his studio. This working method enabled him to add or eliminate details, and so to transform the raw data gathered on these sketching expeditions into highly wrought works of art expressing his thoughts on nature, history, politics, and society. When it comes to finished works as opposed to sketches, we can rarely assume that a scene we are looking at is an accurate description of what Turner saw in front of him—for he omitted, distorted, and added details for his own artistic purposes.

Many of the finished watercolors, and particularly those that Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy, are rich in symbolic or associative content. Others, equally finished, are straightforward topographical views. A vast number of sketches and watercolors that were unsold during his lifetime and found in his studio after his death are primarily simple descriptions of what he saw in front of him and recorded in his ever-ready notebooks. To distinguish between the intended function of each of these works of art is fundamental to understanding Turner’s genius, and it is here that we begin our attempt to interpret any work by him.

Turner reached his maturity in the years when the war with France made travel on the Continent virtually impossible for British citizens. As we learn from James Hamilton’s Turner’s Britain—the catalog for an exhibition at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery in Birmingham, England—for twenty-eight years, between 1790 and 1819, he traveled up and down the British Isles to find his subjects, crossing the Channel only once—and then only for a few months—during the summer of 1802 when the Peace of Amiens enabled him to visit Switzerland, Savoy, and France. During his long period of domestic touring, Turner came to know a British countryside under constant threat of foreign invasion. The medieval cathedrals at Salisbury and Canterbury, a country fair in Wolverhampton, a distant view of Harewood House: such watercolors are accurately descriptive but they are also images of peace, continuity, and stability at a time when news from France was of insurrection, regicide, and military conquest.

Why do we sense that such landscape and architectural studies are embedded with meaning, in a way that those of the architect and topographical artist Paul Sandby (1721–1798), for instance, are not? The answer has to do with the connections Turner makes between landscape, architecture, and historical memory. More than any of his predecessors or contemporaries, Turner weaves into his imagery a sense of the past impinging on the present. This is where a close analysis of Turner’s working method is particularly revealing. In the preliminary sketch for an early watercolor view of the romantic ruins of Ewenny Priory in Glamorganshire, for example, sunlight pours through empty Gothic windows onto the effigy of a recumbent knight. In the finished watercolor, however, Turner has added details that are not present in the sketch: chickens and pigs overrun the dirt floor, which is now littered with farm implements. By comparing the sketch with the completed watercolor, we may presume that Turner embellished reality. If so, his purpose was to turn a merely picturesque view into a commentary on British history, a sort of vanitas or meditation on the Reformation’s wanton destruction of a once powerful Benedictine priory.1

But we have to be careful in our readings of such images, for it is always possible that we are putting meanings into them that Turner never intended. He himself said of the young John Ruskin that the critic “sees more in my pictures than I ever painted.” And yet the large oils exhibited at the height of the Napoleonic Wars undoubtedly reflect Turner’s awareness that he was living at a time when England’s fate hung on the outcome of battles and revolutions, and on the personalities of a few men like Wellington and Na-poleon. This is how to see Snow Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps of 1812, an oil painting that announced a whole new genre of cataclysmic history painting in England, later to be exploited by John Martin and Francis Danby. The picture’s remarkable composition consists simply of vast arcs of dark and light tone that draw the eye into a vortex of snow and wind until, in the far distance, we make out the conquering army, with the tiny figure of Hannibal on his elephant. There are no solid forms at all. That the public accepted so nearly abstract an image as a finished picture is due both to the title and to the explanatory verses from his own meandering poem “The Fallacies of Hope,” which Turner published in the exhibition catalog. But British viewers would also have recognized the topicality of the subject, for they would have seen at once that it refers to Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, and to the eventual destruction of all tyrants, whether in ancient Rome or modern France.


An exhibition that can be seen at Tate Britain in London until January 11 before traveling to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth gives us extraordinary insight into Turner’s working methods by emphasizing the enormous gulf that exists between his preliminary works on paper and his finished oil paintings. By tracing a single theme in Turner’s art—his depiction of the city of Venice—and by including Venetian views by Turner’s contemporaries, the show helps us to understand the particular qualities that made Turner inimitable among British artists. So closely is Turner’s work associated with Venice that it comes as a surprise to learn how little time he actually spent there. He was already forty-four years old when he saw the city for the first time in 1819. But it was not then the place of artistic pilgrimage it was soon to become, and so he stayed for only five days before pressing on to Rome and Naples, where he was to spend almost three months. What is more, his initial encounter with Venice in 1819 germinated in Turner’s consciousness for fourteen years before it resulted in an oil painting with a Venetian subject. His second visit, in 1833, lasted nine days. On the third and last of 1840, he was there for two weeks.

On his first visit he took in all the tourist sites, frantically drawing palaces, churches, campaniles, canals, and bridges—hardly pausing to paint because that could be done back home. Spellbound, he covered about 160 pages in his sketchbooks with tiny pencil studies that have the indiscriminate quality of a modern-day tourist let loose in Venice with an instamatic camera. But early one morning, looking out over the basin of St. Mark’s, Turner stopped, took out his brushes and watercolors, and made three panoramic views showing the Customs House and the churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and San Pietro di Castello—their domes and towers silhouetted against the soft yellow skies and mirrored in the waters below. In a fourth watercolor he turned around and painted the Campanile of St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace.

At this point, it was rare for Turner to paint in color directly from nature. But that morning, it is as though he needed to transpose onto paper as swiftly as possible the limpid beauty he saw before his eyes, using pure color, without the intermediary step of drawing. These luminous studies of architecture dissolving in light and water were ultimately to inaugurate a new phase in his art. Broadly speaking (and with Turner, generalizations should be made with caution), we can say that until this time he had viewed objects in terms of volume and outline, tinted with color. Over the next decade, color began to predominate over form. By the time of his last visit to Venice in 1840, light and color infuse the material world with life.

As Ian Warrell makes clear in his carefully documented essay in the catalog for the Tate exhibition, on Turner’s two subsequent stays in Venice he worked primarily in watercolor. In one gallery, the watercolors made on his 1840 tour are hung in such a way that we can follow Turner’s progress as he moves down the Grand Canal from the Rialto to the Basin of St. Mark’s. In virtually every one, Turner draws the architecture in pencil and then covers this underdrawing with washes of pale color. Often he dips a pen in black pigment to create a row of little windows or awnings, and he can summon up a flotilla of moored gondolas with a few flicks of a tiny brush, like a Chinese calligrapher. For the most part, he views the palaces on either side of the Grand Canal obliquely, just as you see them from a gondola or vaporetto, but every so often he confronts his motif head on, as in his study of the monumental palaces the Grimani and dei Cavalli, two Renaissance matriarchs standing guard on either side of a narrow canal.

  1. 1

    See Turner: The Great Watercolours, edited by Eric Shanes (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2000), cat. 8.

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