Anne Gardom visits Turner at Tate Britain

In 1851 JMW Turner left a bequest of an enormous number of his works to the nation. There were hundreds of oil paintings and tens of thousands of watercolours covering the entire span of his artistic career. Some had never been seen in public, some were finished works, others unfinished, some were little more than private notes. The Tate Gallery, which houses this treasure trove, cannot possibly display it all at once, but the refurbished Clore galleries at Tate Britain give us a new look at Turner and help us to see him as an artist, an innovator, and an important influence on the intellectual and artistic life of the nineteenth century. Works by some of his contemporaries are also on show demonstrating the way in which they influenced each other’s work.

History and Morality

At that time History Painting was regarded as the highest form of art – it used biblical, mythological and historical subjects to illustrate moral issues. Paintings of this type were much admired and commanded high prices, and Turner painted such subjects all his life. There are some magnificent examples of this genre on display – Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides, a picture that lives up to its resounding title, with an astonishing dragon-filled landscape. The works of Claude Lorain (1600–1682) were much admired by Turner and his contemporaries, and he left his Dido Building Carthage to the National Gallery on condition that it be hung alongside Claude’s The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. Claude had a far-reaching influence on landscape painting during his own lifetime and long afterwards.

Landscape, pastoral and sublime

Alongside his contemporaries in art and literature, Turner was fascinated by the concept of the Sublime – terrible beauty, huge overwhelming clouds and landscapes, and the parallel concept of Beauty – things lovely to look at, gentle, smooth, serene, and the allied dimension of the Picturesque – which emphasized agreeable contrasts and variety. These artistic concepts were important to artists of the period and need to be borne in mind when looking at their work. Hannibal Crossing the Alps with its piled-up peaks and clouds dwarfing the scurrying figures in the foreground is an example of the Sublime, as is de Loutherborg’s Avalanche in the Alps, where you can almost hear the crashing tumbling rocks. This gallery, devoted to Sublime Landscape, gives a good overview of the work of different artists in this genre.

Pastoral Landscape, however, is a great contrast, and this gallery displays work by a variety of artists. There are beautiful luminous landscapes by Richard Wilson (an artist much admired by Turner) and Gainsborough (who preferred painting landscapes to his much more profitable portraits). Here Turner’s large Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday is both a patriotic exercise and an idyllic painting of a golden sun-filled landscape. The influence of Claude on artists painting in the pastoral tradition is enduring.

Water colour topography

The Napoleonic Wars made travel abroad difficult for long periods of time and Turner and his fellow artists painted widely in the British Isles. Many watercolour artists were painting at this time: their work, full of originality and vitality, presented the British countryside in new and interesting ways. Guidebooks and magazines made their work known to an increasing public. There are lovely watercolours by Varley, Girtin and Towne, among others, and Turner’s own watercolours and sketchbooks. He used some of these as a basis for his oil paintings. Ploughing the Turnips near Slough is a wintry scene in browns and grays, with the bulk of Windsor Castle discernible in the misty sky. Other watercolours painted for engraving were used to illustrate books on English architecture and topography. He painted in watercolours all his life, and was recognized as a brilliant and innovative painter in this medium.

When it became possible to travel and paint abroad again, he went to France, Switzerland and Germany and Rome. He sketched prolifically and made copious notes, and his notebooks and sketchpads give a vivid idea of his minute observation of an immense variety of details. He responded to the Venetian paintings of Canaletto, and also the luminous, watery light that has ever inspired painting in Venice. He had an astonishing memory, and his tiny sketches (on small rectangles of blue paper) of the towns and villages on the banks of the Loire seem barely more than outlines, but they were the basis of a whole book of illustrations. They were exhibited a couple of years ago, but are not on view at the moment.

Alongside the rest

The largest gallery – Exhibiting Turner – is hung to show the way in which pictures were displayed at the Royal Academy Exhibitions during his lifetime. Pictures were hung quite densely, with the best positions much sought after. Turner’s pictures are displayed beside those of his contemporaries, with Victorian narrative painting (so dear to the heart of Victorians) by Wilkie and Bonington

Turner became a Royal Academician at a very young age, and exhibited there throughout his life; most of his largest and most finished works were first shown there. The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up was exhibited in 1839 and is considered to be one of his finest works. It is not on exhibition here, but can be seen as a print in the most interesting and moving little gallery called Turner and the Modern World. In this gallery you can see how artists responded to the Industrial Revolution with its factories, chimneys belching smoke, iron foundries and tugs and paddle-steamers. Turner was fascinated by the passing of the old order and the advance of the industrial age with all its new concepts of political democracy, capitalism and industrial labour. He painted wonderful pictures: Industrial Town at Sunset, The Thames from Waterloo Bridge – smoking chimneys and a hazy, ghostly bridge, Peace, Burial at Sea (the burial of Wilkie) with its tall, beautiful ships, silhouettes and brilliant lighting. His response and those of his fellow artists is pioneering and very exciting. The bequest included a number of unfinished canvases – displayed in a gallery of their own – huge semi-abstract swirling paintings. As he grew older Turner reached after more and more instant and expressive ways of painting, mixing oil and watercolour, using oils in a very transparent way, using them thickly, the very diversity of technique can be confusing. Some of the paintings have deteriorated and it is hard to know what they once looked like.

The watercolour galleries upstairs are a pure delight – his complete mastery of the technique is shown in a range of drawings, paintings and intimate little sketchbooks. Watercolour was a medium of painting where English artists excelled, and none of them was greater than Turner.

Tate Britain, Millbank, The Clore Galleries – admission free.

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions.