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.
When he was at ease, with his fellow Academicians, or with families (and particularly the children of families) with whom he was a favourite visitor, his intelligence and breadth of interest were recognised. He was a character people wished to record: Andrew Wilton’s beautifully-shaped documentary biography shows how often he amused or startled people into felicitous description. A young businessman records a meeting:
I have fortunately met with a good-tempered, funny, little, elderly gentleman, who will probably be my travelling-companion throughout the journey. He is continually popping his head out of the window to sketch whatever strikes his fancy, and became quite angry because the conductor would not wait for him whilst he took a sunrise view of Macerata. ‘Damn the fellow!’ says he. ‘He has no feeling.’ He speaks but a few words of Italian, about as much French, which two languages he jumbles together most amusingly. His good temper, however, carries him through all his troubles. I am sure you would love him for his indefatigability in his favourite pursuit. From his conversation he is evidently near kin if not absolutely, an artist. Probably you know something of him. The name on his trunk is, J.W. or J.M.W. Turner.
The trouble with such descriptions is that they tend to be written by people from whom Turner was separated by class and education. They create the picture of him as a Dickensian grotesque, and there is nothing from his own hand to balance the record. His poetry and theoretical writing on art are obscure, his notes to his father dealing with such practicalities as buying canvases and sending on more pairs of light trousers are no more humanly revealing, while his letters to patrons and friends too often replace intimacy with elaborate, punning jocularity.
His famous secretiveness may have been a natural desire to protect the bolt hole Turner the famous painter had in the character of Turner, common-law husband of Sarah Danby and father of two daughters by her, or, later, Turner, alias Booth (sometimes Admiral Booth), common-law husband of Mrs Booth in Chelsea. His domestic relations with these women are undocumented. Negligible provision was made for them in his various wills, and Sarah Danby did not, as his father did, live with him in his house at Twickenham: its planned name was Solus Lodge. The impression is that this part of his life was managed with unsympathetic realism, but the bulkhead cutting it off is soundly built and the impression could be false. What is perfectly clear is that nothing in his life approached art in importance.
His single-mindedness could be rebarbative. The ungrateful boy remembered by a cousin – ‘a plain uninteresting youth ... cared little about any subject except his drawing ... My uncle gave him a pony and lent him a saddle, bridle and cloak, but these he never returned. My uncle used to exclaim what an ungrateful little scoundrel’ – is recognisable in the surly tourist one of John Soane’s sons came across in Italy: ‘Turner is out in the neighbourhood of Naples making rough pencil sketches to the astonishment of the Fashionables, who wonder of what use these rough draughts can be – simple souls! At Rome a sucking blade of the brush made the request of going out with pig Turner to colour – he grunted for answer that it would take up too much time to colour in the open air – he could made 15 or 16 pencil sketches to one coloured, and then grunted his way home.’
Landscape sketching is a public activity, so, despite his general secrecy about methods, his procedures out of doors are well documented. He looked that he might remember. On a boat trip he is seen making a whole sequence of notes on the changing riverside views. In Yorkshire he records the progress of a thunderstorm:
Hawkey – Hawkey! – come here – come here! Look at this thunder storm! Isn’t it grand? – isn’t it wonderful? – isn’t it sublime? All this time he was making notes of its form and colour on the back of a letter. I proposed some better drawing-block, but he said it did very well. He was absorbed – he was entranced. There was the storm rolling and sweeping and shafting out its lightning over the Yorkshire hills. Presently the storm passed, and he finished. ‘There,’ said he, ‘Hawkey; in two years you will see this again and call it “Hannibal crossing the Alps”.’
In his old age, surveying the Thames from the little terrace he had built on the roof of his Chelsea cottage, he gave up drawing altogether, and spent his hours merely staring at the changing light.
The studio door was easy to keep shut, but two little girls in one of the houses where he was staying saw the tinted sheets he was working on hung like washing on lines stretched across his room and a boy – the same Hawkey who was called to look at the thunderstorm – was one of the few to watch the evolution of a Turner watercolour:
One morning at breakfast Walter Fawkes said to [Turner]: ‘I want you to make me a drawing of the ordinary dimensions that will give some idea of the size of a man of war.’ The idea hit Turner’s fancy, for with a chuckle he said to Walter Fawkes’s eldest son, then a boy of about 15, ‘Come along Hawkey and we will see what we can do for Papa,’ and the boy sat by his side the whole morning and witnessed the evolution of The First Rate taking in Stores. His description of the way Turner went to work was very extraordinary. He began by pouring wet paint till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutiae, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph.
Varnishing days at the British Institution or the Royal Academy, when the exhibitors were allowed to make final adjustments to their canvases, turned secrecy on its head. What his contemporaries describe as almost blank canvases were transformed on the gallery wall. The effect can be imagined, for in the room of Venetian paintings at the Tate a number of lay-ins of the kind Turner sent in are displayed alongside finished pictures. This is not a permanent arrangement, a sign that we are not to be encouraged to wallow long in – Constable’s words – Turner’s ‘tinted steam’. He arrived early on varnishing day at the British Institution when Burning of the House of Lords and Commons was shown. ‘Indeed it was quite necessary to make the best use of his time, as the picture he sent in was a mere dab of several colours and “without form and void”, like chaos before creation ... presently the work was finished: Turner gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, and at the same distance from it, went sidelong off, without speaking a word to anybody, and when he came to the staircase, in the centre of the room, hurried down as fast as he could ... Maclise, who stood near, remarked, “There, that’s masterly, he does not stop to look at his work; he knows it is done and he is off.” ’ Other adjustments were a response to the pictures his were hung with. He was intensely competitive, and if his work was being shouted down he would, on the whole good-humouredly, make it louder. When a grey sea-piece of his was hung alongside Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge he added a red buoy in the foreground. ‘He has been here and fired a gun,’ Constable said. Something of what varnishing days meant to him was made clear when, shortly before his death, he heard the rumour that they were to be abolished. ‘Then you will do away with the only social meetings we have,’ he said, ‘the only occasions on which we all come together in an easy unrestrained manner. When we have no varnishing days we will not know one another.’
To be as good as the best in this company of painters gave Turner confidence. The need to paint what would sell had been removed by the investment of money from early success in stocks and property. The pressures of middle-class respectability were avoided by a retreat into secretive domesticity. Regular travel at home and abroad provided the stimulus of new light and landscape. The circulation of prints of his work was profitable, and it also brought a wider audience. Turner’s management of his business life – the opening of his private gallery before he was thirty, his careful negotiations with publishers and his relations with patrons – show an awareness of his own worth which might be offensive if it was not justified and used to defend and preserve his work. A.J. Finberg, his most thorough biographer, could find only ‘a common workman and tradesman’ in him, and the only interesting thing about him the fact that he was the man who painted Turner’s pictures. But to be more interesting would have diverted energy from the development of his talent.
According to Ruskin, Turner’s response on seeing ‘a piece of paint out of the sky as large as a fourpenny piece’ which had fallen from the sky of Crossing the Brook, and being asked, ‘How can you look at the picture and see it so injured,’ was: ‘What does it matter? The only use of the thing is to recall the impression.’ The technical imperfections and crudities of Turner’s pictures – or what have from time to time been seen as such – are, like the flaking sky, no impediment to his effects. The architecture of colour and tone, and the space and light which this architecture evokes, are so firm that the details another painter might need to say what was far and what was near, or those which would tell you about the weather, are unnecessary. For this reason Ruskin’s admiration of late Turner is not inconsistent with his attack on Whistler, whose simplifications create patterns, not structures.
The beginning might be in Claude, or a Thames view, or a suggestive random shape of the kind Cozzens (and Leonardo before him) recommended. There is a nice description of Turner setting up a landscape:
He rubbed three cakes of watercolour – red, blue and yellow – in three separate saucers, gave one to each child, and told the children to dabble in the saucers and then play together with their coloured fingers on his paper. These directions were gleefully obeyed, as the reader may well imagine. Turner watched the work of the thirty little fingers with serious attention, after the dabbling had gone on for some time, he suddenly called out ‘Stop!’ he then took the drawing into his own hands, added some imaginary landscape forms, suggested by the accidental colouring, and the work was finished.
Contemporary comments (which can be read picture by picture in Butlin and Joll) show that even his most daring effects were understood by an appreciable number of his contemporaries: it is arrogant to assume that passing time has necessarily given us better access to his work.
It has, however, given us a lot of reproductions. The accident of so many of the same paintings being reproduced at the same time – in the books noticed here one can compare four versions of some of them – proves that an impression unharmed by a missing scrap of sky may not survive reduction in scale and distortion of colour balance. Turner’s large oil paintings are particularly susceptible to misrepresentation: for example, none of the versions of The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sybil catch the astonishing effect of the bright shadow within which the figures stand.
Reproductions of Turner are a particularly interesting case, because one can set engravings he supervised against originals, and colour reproductions of those originals. The chapter which describes the effect seeing his work engraved had on Turner’s painting, and the care he took in supervising these translations, is one of the most interesting in Gage’s book. In accounts of Turner’s advice to engravers one gets to understand much about his own notation of landscape. W.B. Cooke’s son remembered an exchange: ‘My father once asked how he should translate a bit of brilliant red in one of his pictures. He answered, “Sometimes translate it into black, and at another time into white. If a bit of black give the emphasis, so does red in my picture, and in the case of translating it into white,” he said, after a brief reflection, “put a grinning line into it that will make it attractive.” ’
The new galleries are now open, and the light is good. In these books Turner’s mind is also well displayed. The best introduction to the paintings would be to read the texts, stripped of their illustrations. The excitement of looking at Turner now is that it is possible to grasp clearly the intelligence and poetry which have tended to be obscured by an aesthetic which was not his; to understand what Constable meant when he said, ‘I always expected to find him what I did. He has a wonderful range of mind’; and to realise the extent to which we have been behaving like that literal-minded critic of a sunset by Danby whom Turner admonished by saying: ‘Don’t say that; you can’t know how such things hurt. You only look at the truth of the landscape: Mr Danby is a poetical painter.’