Solus lodges at the Tate

Peter Campbell

  • J.M.W. Turner: ‘A Wonderful Range of Mind’ by John Gage
    Yale, 262 pp, £19.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03779 1
  • Turner in his Time by Andrew Wilton
    Thames and Hudson, 256 pp, £25.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 500 09178 1
  • Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence by Cecilia Powell
    Yale, 216 pp, £25.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03870 4
  • The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner by Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll
    Yale, 944 pp, £35.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 300 03361 3
  • The Turner Collection in the Clore Gallery
    Tate Gallery, 128 pp, £9.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 946590 69 9
  • Turner Watercolours by Andrew Wilton
    Tate Gallery, 148 pp, £17.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 946590 67 2

It was wet on the night of the opening of the new Turner galleries. The fireworks celebrating the occasion made the clouds of misty rain substantial. Reflections in the windows of the dismal wall of offices which faces the Tate across the Thames mixed with car lights and street lamps. A crowd from the party inside gathered on the steps under umbrellas. The bigger starbursts were applauded, much as the flames bursting through the roof of the Lords’ chamber were applauded by the crowd watching the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. The fireworks roused the sense of the sublime from the distant thicket in the 20th-century mind to which it has retreated.

Not quite the terrible – or tragic – or ecstatic-sublime of Turner’s Avalanche, or Burning of the Houses of Parliament, or Burial at Sea or Rain, Steam and Speed, but an emotion recognisably of that sort. The effect was not merely picturesque. A work which did Turnerian justice to the events outside the Tate would draw on knowledge of the psychology of crowds, the sciences of light and electricity, and the event being celebrated – the achievement of Turner’s desire for a national memorial. His was a wide-ranging intelligence and some of his contemporaries recognised it. F.T. Palgrave, for instance, wrote:

The impression Turner made on me was just that of ... great general ability and quickness. Whatever subject of talk was started, he seemed master of it – books, politics &c. This confirms me in my general view of art – that it is less the product of a special faculty than of a powerful or genial nature, expressing itself through paint or marble. This is Goethe’s idea of genius.

The clutch of books published to mark the opening of the new galleries supports this view of Turner’s genius. John Gage ends his introduction with a remark made by Lawrence Gowing in 1966: ‘It is not certain that we are yet prepared to see Turner whole.’ Gage reckons it is time to renew the attempt.

He uses another quotation from Gowing to epitomise the Modernist view of Turner – as a painter who transcended Romanticism and was before his time. What Gowing wrote was this:

Turner isolated the pictorial effect as one skims cream off milk. He proceeded to synthesise it afresh with almost excessive richness. To complete the product he was apt to add synthetic details; we do not always find them convincing. His essential creation did not require them and eventually he realised it. He had isolated an intrinsic quality of painting and revealed that it could be self-sufficient, an independent imaginative function.

The argument at its crudest is about Turner with or without titles: do the subjects matter? Accept him as a Romantic, and say that they do, and the limpid oil studies of the Thames, the evocations of Venice in floating washes and a scribble of brush strokes, as well as the unfinished pictures, become subsidiary to a higher purpose. Deny the subject-matter and Turner becomes a proto-Impressionist, even a proto-Abstract Expressionist. The latter interpretation makes his emulation of Claude, or Rembrandt a temporary scaffolding rather than a dialogue. The former can show how hard it is to separate the ‘synthetic details’, the high operatic drama of legends, and the general theme of man and nature, from the ‘ocean of pictorial effect’, but it cannot, by this demonstration alone, change what we see and feel before the pictures. It is notable, however, that the change in critical attitude which these books represent coincides with a new interest among living artists in figurative symbolic painting.

Turner was the son of a barber. An early apprenticeship in architectural draughtsmanship curtailed other education. Later he tried to learn Latin, but not successfully. He mispronounced words in his perspective lectures at the Academy, and, if a parody by W.P. Frith hits its mark, was a comically bad public speaker. He suffered what Gage describes as ‘difficulties of language amounting to something like dyslexia’, and compounded the disability by writing poetry. This, through an Academy dispensation allowing quotations in the catalogue, was published as picture titles. He was confident of his genius, but self-conscious about his manner and appearance. In his relations with the polite world he could mix something near obsequiousness with truculence. He had a reputation for meanness and parsimony, justified, perhaps, in his own eyes by the knowledge that what he saved would go to charity.

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