Showing his True Colours

J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour (Turner Contemporary, 8 October 2016-8 January 2017)

Joseph Mallord William Turner has to be the hardest working artist in British history. Pretty well every provincial art gallery I’ve been to has one of his works, usually of a local view. This island is obviously well gifted with landscapes, the genre which he made his own. Even the Carbuncle in Lisbon has a couple on display. In his early career, I presume he used coaches, but steam boats and then trains presumably helped his meandering — especially after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He got to Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech, Slovenia, Austria and so on.

And yet I confess to a little resistance to him — I suspect there’s a little too much TurnerTM, Heritage painting, and I even went through a phase of liking the earlier, more classical styles. And I have a memory of visiting the Clore Gallery at the Tate — as you have to if you want your Blake fix — where a chunk of Turner’s unsold paintings he left to the nation are on display. Someone came in, took photos of every single panting, and left after four minutes. Very odd.

He was, of course, controversial in his day, his tastes and methods questioned, so I need to reevaluate him and his work. The Turner Contemporary has offered a couple of chances to do so — it always aims to have one of his works on show, it did a big Turner and the Elements show and now has J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour as another opportunity.

The Tate posted an image of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire on Facebook, and I noted it was a shame that this image of a sailing ship being towed by a steamboat out of a sunset to be broken up would be better if the coast were on the correct side. Someone responded that this was to do with composition and did I know the story of how Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

Well, yes, actually, I do, if there’s one story that everyone knows about Turner, it’s the one where Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

The coast is still in the wrong side. And anyway, sailing out of a sunset is hardly elegiac.

But clearly, the man had a way with colour, and the joy of the book on Turner and the Elements was its discussion of the technology of colours and Turner’s acquaintance with scientists of the day. The two cultures were not so divided back then. I think he was the first artists in Britain to use cobalt paints and I wish there’d been a bit more on this back then. I suspect, in what is a show that is frankly too big, the narrative got a little lost.

The first paintings you pick up as you enter are views of Norham Castle and Lincoln Cathedral. These follow the rules of landscape painting which I learned from Astrup’s breaking of them: you accentuate earthy brown in the foreground and exaggerate the blue in the background. This adds to the sense of perspective and scale — ideally you stick a human figure or an animal in the frame to give an identificatory viewpoint or a yardstick for size. Dolbadarn Castle (1800), silhouetted by the evening son, features bandits, adding a narrative (apparently about a Welsh family). Failing that, a spot of white or a splash of red will draw the viewers’ attention. His Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore (1792) has a limited pallete of browns and greens, made mobile by flecks of white and a red jacket.

In his training at the Royal Academy he was exposed to Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Titian and Canaletto, painters who tended to classical or Biblical narratives with landscape background. In the period of striving for realism I think you can see this — in his volcanos, fireworks and burning Houses of Parliament you can see Rosa. At much the same time, Joseph Wright was doing more interesting things with the light and John Martin finding a more monumental scale, but that’s more my taste.

Troubled by the sludginess of the browns and greens, Turner from 1805 started preparing his canvases with white paint or pigments, which gives a greater luminosity to everything that goes on top — I wonder if this was to be a Postimpressionist technique, as L. S. Lowry was to use it on advice of an French artist. Of course, sometimes the whiteness began to overwhelm the painting — the more famous canvases of clouds and seascapes, the mistiness of Frosty Morning (1813), the almost monochrome Venice with the Salute (1844) looking like spilt milk. On the other hand, he uses a European blue-coloured paper to stand in for sky or water in some drawings and a rich vermilion in Vermilion Towers (1838).

We learn along the way that he uses a mix of linseed oil and resin, megilp, as a means of enriching his standard paints and he started engaging with debates about the nature of colour. As Professor of Perspective — great job title — at the Royal Academy, he lectured on colour, colour wheels and chromatography, and whilst we have his handwritten notes on show, his writing is not legible. A transcript would have been useful — I should of course Google to see if they have been published. More annoying is the mention of refutation of Isaac Newton’s work on colour by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which Turner sided with Newton, who described the splitting of light into the spectrum via the prism and discussed colour as reflected light. Goethe, on the other hand…

Well, I’m not sure what his theory is. I m not even clear, from further reading, that it is a theory. In part, in seems to depend on the prism being a special case and the refraction being more complicated than Newton allows, as well as the colour of shadows. Scratches head. Goethe’s Theories of Colour was translated by Charles Lake Eastlake in 1840, apparently a friend of Turner. Again the two cultures was unformed.

This comes to a head in Turner’s Late square canvases, with the colour taking on the curves of the circle — although I seem to recall the same circles in the work of John Martin. Two examples, I think Shade and Darkness — the evening of the Deluge (1843) and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Morning after the Deluge — Moses writing the Book of Genesis (1843) — seem to be explorations of Goethe’s thoughts on colour and emotion, but I’m not clear how this follows through.

These paintings might be pointing back nearly forty years to his picture The Deluge (1805), in itself a response to Poussin’s painting Winter (The Deluge) (1660-64), which features a boat within a cove or a cave pool by the sea. Turner seems to have seen this in 1802 and commented “The colour of this picture impresses the subject more than the incidents which are by no means fortunate either as to place, position or colour, as they are separate spots untouched by the dark colour that pervades the whole.” Turner is setting out to correct the deficiencies he goes into note, and adds a black sailor, although this might be a much later addition. The gallery notes Turner’s investment in 1805 in a cattle farm in Jamaica, connecting him to the slave trade. However, Turner was to become abolitionist in later years.

But the story of Turner and colour is distracted by the various views of Margate that Turner produced over the years — and it is undeniably interesting to see the obscure fishing village that became a watering hole transformed over the decades, and to note how much the town has declined since. Whilst the revamped (and distinctly post-Turner) Dreamland seems to limp along from financial crisis to financial crisis, the Turner Contemporary seems to flourish. The temptation to offer local views is understandable and is one thing that will draw people in.

Just as Mitchell and Kenyon clearly filmed locals to whom they then screened the films in the 1900s and for decades the walky photographers took photos of tourists to sell to tourists, so Turner clearly had an eye on what would sell to locals — or might interest those on tour. The corner devoted to engravings and mezzotints shows how Turner could further monetise his work — with some extraordinary work — even as his perfectionism cut against this success. As a painter of working class origin, he would see no shame in pleasing as many markets as he could, even as his experiments clearly pushed at the boundaries.

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