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J. M. W. Turner: The Fallacy of Hope
By BRYAN ROBERTSON
TURNER remains the supreme master of the English School : he made, furthermore, some of the most original and magnificent paintings in the history of European art. Their virtues do not reside in mere innovation per se, though this was achieved on soaring peaks of inspiration throughout his lifetime. They stem, inescapably, from a total vision of nature, illuminated or shadowed by a highly personal apprehension of life and death; developed, sustained, and finally transcended, over a period of sixty years. This great endeavour, so moving and enthralling in its motives and inflections, has to be considered as a whole before its implications can be even marginally comprehended. So far, we have not really bothered to make the effort.
Many Englishmen love Turner's work; very few know it. He is part of our national heritage, with Shakespeare, Byrd or Purcell; and not easily linked with other English painters. And yet, since Finberg's monumental biography (a triumph of scrupulous record and the only reliable reference work), no attempt has yet been made to undertake the glaringly necessary task of relating Turner to European art as a whole and to its subsequent developments. The best account of Turner's genius is still to be found in Ken- neth Clark's Landscape into Art, written in 1949, in which Sir Kenneth's infectious amateur enthusiasm for his subject is tempered with con- siderable scholarship and independent insight. Otherwise, there is little of consequence to study —except the work, and that is most incon- sistently, and tragically, dispersed. Detailed ex- ploration under present conditions would be a Herculean task : for English research, let alone foreign scrutiny.
For a long while Turner was under a cloud. Roger Fry dismissed him with contempt. This dazzling, illogical and infinitely complex phe- nomenon disrupted Fry's classical instincts and could not be allowed to stand in the light of Fry's chosen mission : the propagation of French art among the benighted English. And so we were when Fry was active; but he did rather more than dismiss Turner, he denigrated him most wilfully. 'I wonder whether Turner ever did have any distinctive personal experience before nature,' and so on. This, of a man whose notes on optical reflections in 1808 (the Tabley sketchbooks in the Turner Bequest) and 'Ship- wreck' sketchbooks of 1803-4 already open new horizons for art; whilst the studies in oil made on the Thames between Walton and Windsor, or from the Wey at Guildford in c. 1807, clearly foreshadow the French impressionists in their sensation of light, air, space, colour and form dissolved in light. The year before, 1806, he had commenced work for the great Liber Studiorum series of mezzotint-engravings, the subjects for which came from all over England, the Con- tinent, and classical legend. The same man, at sixty-seven, spent perilous hours in a snowstorm at sea, lashed to the mast to observe the ele- ments. To describe a fraction of Turner's ad- ventures and hazards in his quest for visual information is impossible here. Not long before
he died, in 1851, he was making studies of icebergs. 'Personal experience' of nature?
For back in 1802, immediately after the sign- ing of the Treaty of Amiens, Turner made his first journey on the Continent between July and October (he had travelled prodigiously in the British Isles in the past) and returned with 400 drawings, as well as a 'Louvre' sketchbook and thirty manuscript pages of notes on pictures in that museum. This first foreign tour is typical of Turner's annual explorations before and after 1802; its implications of energy and factual ex- tent can only be appreciated by listing the itinerary in sequence. To Paris en route for Swit- zerland: Dover, Paris, Auxerre, Chalon-sur- Saone, Macon, Lyons, Grenoble, Chambery, Geneva, Bonneville, Chamonix (mer-de-glace), Val d'Aosta, Courmayeur, Fort Roc, Aosta, Martigny; Rhone Valley to the Castle of Chillon, Vevey, Montboron, Thun, Interlaken, Lauter- brunnen, Grindelwald, Reichenbach Falls, Meiringen, Lucerne, Altdorf, St. Gotthard Pass (Devil's Bridge), Zurich, Schaffhausen, Basle, Strasbourg, Nancy, Paris, Calais—London. Travelling in 1802 was primitive, arduous and comparatively slow. Turner made marvellous records of each of these places and much else: only one aspect of his work for that year.
His English travels in other years can only be described as stupendous in the light of planned and executed commissions which relate to these regular journeys, in addition to other work : notably, the long and elaborate series of engravings that could only be executed back in London. The central core of his work, the oil paintings, continually grew and expanded : de- veloped in London each year after his travels.
In 1819 Turner made his first visit to Italy, the year after he had painted a great monumen- tal picture, The Dort, which has hung in the drawing-room at Farnley Hall since it was painted—a sublime masterpiece with an unpre- cedented handling of space. (It was at Farnley that he was first exposed to the grand Wharfe- dale scenery which he used later as the back- ground to Hannibal Crossing the Alps.) But in 1819 Italy claimed him for three months. He visited, in order, Dover, Calais, Paris, Lyons, Sens, Auxerre, Chambery, Modane, Lanslebourg, Mt. Cenis, Turin, Como, the lakes, Milan, Verona, Venice, Bologna, Rimini, Ancona, Macerato, Foligno, Rome. Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii, Amalfi, Sorrento, Paestum, Her- culaneum, Albano, Rome. Florence, Turin, Lanslebourg, etc., London. Between the time of his arrival in Rome and his departure, three months at most, Turner made nearly 1,500 draw- ings, 200 of which are a fair size, detailed and elaborate; as well as studies and copious notes on paintings and sculpture by old masters. All this activity fed his visual references : the strange nature of his imagination was already impeccably formed, and developed implacably.
Born in 1775, Turner exhibited his first draw- ing at the Royal Academy in 1790. He was fifteen. From then on his industry was unremit- ting and gargantuan in scale. But in addition to Innumerable commissions and an endless series of topographical studies, Turner held for several years the Professorship of Perspective at the Academy schools and produced some extraordin- ary treatises. He experimented with Goethe's theory of colour and frequented the studio of a photographer, Mayall, to study optics. He wrote, spasmodically, a poem, The Fallacies of Hope, lines from which prefaced many of his most famous paintings. This uneven, pessimistic, philosophical epic was never completed and is still only in manuscript form. Turner's concern for it, combined with his alternating centripetal and centrifugal devices in painting, suggests that the ethos behind his work was to some degree meta- physical as well as optical. For this reason alone he should not be compared with Monet, who was indeed consumed by visual phenomena but untinged by contrasting moods of optimism and sadness. These give an extra dimension to Tur- ner's colour as well as his compositions—expan- sively flying outwards, or claustrophobically swirling inwards to the centre of the canvas.
When Turner died in 1851, pathetically enough from a constitution enfeebled by living on slops laced with rum because his false teeth had always been painful, he left an astonishing will. After a lifetime of supposedly mild misanthropy and more apparent frugality, he left the vast sum, for that time, of £140,000 with which to found a Charity for Poor and Decayed English Artists. This fortune was amassed entirely through Tur- ner's practice as an artist. Because of legal quibbles, his spectacularly humane gesture was frustrated. The property was divided among five distant relations to whom Turner wished to leave nothing. The splendour of this posthumous gift was fortunately by no means eclipsed : in addition to the money, Turner also left to the nation some 19,000 watercolours and drawings, 100 finished oil paintings and 250 'unfinished' paintings and sketches. (What was considered unfinished in 1851 assumes another complexion today.) Turner stipulated that his bequest to the nation should be housed, intact, in a special gallery : an action intended to implement his most fundamental beliefs and concepts.
The second part of this article will appear next week.