TURNER AND THE SEA
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich Until 21 April
Admission £10, concessions available
A LARGE part of criticism is to state the obvious, and what is obvious about this show is that it is full of sea paintings. Is Turner varied enough to keep our interest through 140 briny pictures? Or might the marine have been pepped up with cheerful landscapes?
The show is one of a series in recent years which draws primarily on the Tate’s large collection of Turner’s work, much of it given by the artist with one eye to his future reputation. These shows have featured different themes such as watercolour and the trips which Turner made around Britain and the Continent. This exhibition mixes those themes within the marine genre. There are works in the different media of watercolour, mezzotints and oils. And the different occasions for them include coastal tours, one-offs for exhibition and responses to other marine artists, past and present. It is a fair showing of Turner’s full range across the whole of his working life.
Two elements to the show prevent it from being an exercise in Turnerolatry. First, there are examples from Turner’s immediate predecessors and his contemporaries. The predecessors on show are not up to much, even when lauded in their time. Nor are most of the contemporaries, with the great exceptions of Constable and Bonnington. Theirs are fine works but they suggest to today’s eyes that the fiercely competitive Tuner was up against few serious rivals. And they prove it is possible to see marine scenes in the early nineteenth century without Turner’s eyes.
Constable also brings us back to the question how successfully Turner escaped the limitations of the marine genre. From the seventeenth century marine scenes had been either a beautiful calm or a horrid storm (or battle). Turner the Romantic accentuated this, so much so you might
wonder how anybody sailed on his seas which are either dead calm or boiling apocalyptically. Constable at least paints a strong but unthreatening sea breeze.
Turner deals with the problem of a lack of variety in two ways. The first, in the different series of views he made for publication in print, was take a standard view and either paint it at a different time or in different weather from the norm, or to improve the view by painting what wasn’t there. These approaches were artistically fruitful and led to the second type of variations, the variations of the mature painter who focused on atmosphere and what paint could do.
On his way to that artistic resolution there are some wonderful paintings. One of the first of these is the 1802 Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather. Though this still contains the Ruisdael effect of a patch of bright sea echoing a patch of bright sky – Turner recognized his debt to the great Dutch artist – which repeats so often in Turner’s work, it has two distinctive and individual touches.
First, there is the sympathy for the fishermen for their hard work and nautical skill. Second, the strip of spume and spray across the painting needs to be looked at and looked at for its skill, panache and painterly life. There are many pictures where Turner creates a similar effect but here at the beginning of his work there is a freshness about it. The design of this painting comes to its
mature development in the late Rocket and Blue Lights (1840).
Another standard design is the Claude-inspired harbour scene. The finest of these is Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Mooonlight (1835), hung alongside two others of its kind, Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore (1834) and the 1839 Fighting Temeraire, now made famous by James Bond but also fêted when first exhibited. The Temeraire is a typical Turner composition with the low horizon, and the fiery, dark sun in the right hand corner, contrasted to the other half of the painting which is in clearer, paler colours.
The Keelmen also has the dark, fiery, right hand corner, but the higher horizon and the lighting of the scene by the moon transfigures the industrial landscape (which Turner had meticulously sketched previously). Turner embraced this new world even while he lamented the passing of the age of Nelson – as Temeraire goes down into the sunset, the moon in the Keelmen lights the heavenly way from South Shields to Newcastle.
A third design which is found in Turner’s work is the swirling mass of water in various wreck and landing scenes. Snow-storm (1842) is the culmination of these, a painting where wind and light and water and the manipulation of paint combine, so that the steam ship at its centre is all but lost to the artist’s other concerns. Here we see it was Turner’s genius to create variety in marine painting, not just by a manipulation of subject matter but by a new kind of painting.
The catalogue is solid but uninspired.