Turner – visionary or conservative?

Turner – visionary or conservative?

SELBY WHITTINGHAM rides to the rescue of Turner’s legacy

J. M. W. Turner

Ever since 1966, when Sir Lawrence Gowing organised a Turner exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art at New York, it has been widely accepted in the art world that Turner was one of the most revolutionary of English painters, anticipating first Impressionism and then Abstract Expressionism. But in recent years, Andrew Wilton, one of Sir Lawrence’s successors at the Tate Gallery, has waged a battle against the portrayal of Turner as a revolutionary. He returned to the attack in The Times Literary Supplement (7 September 2012).  The importance of this stale debate lies in that in the process Wilton does the opposite of what he claims to do.  So far from clarifying our picture of Turner he inadvertently aids its distortion.

Wilton, calling in aid Professor Sam Smiles (author of J.M.W.Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, 2007), alleges that the idea of Turner as a modern artist was all got up in the 20th century by Modernists, who unhistorically used Turner’s unfinished works as the basis of their argument that Turner anticipated first.

Yet the fact that Turner was a revolutionary was plain both to Turner and to his contemporaries.  It is well known that he jokingly compared his pictures to plates of salad.  A Punch cartoon in 1845 carried this further by depicting two of his finished exhibited oil paintings of Venice as purely abstract.

Many a truth is revealed in jest.  For the truth simply look at the late exhibited finished pictures, such as Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.

Snow-Storm - Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth

Literal-minded scholars imagine that it was being claimed in 1966 that Turner was an Abstract Expressionist, whereas all that was being highlighted was a tendency which resonated with some then. Gowing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1974 denied flatly that Turner was “the first pioneer of amorphous abstraction.”  That tendency was not simply a function of a late style, as implied by the recent Turner-Monet-Twombly exhibition.  Painterliness and sketchiness were traits Turner inherited from the school of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Wilson. These qualities and abstract compositional underlays went back to Baroque painting.  In 1799 he told Farington that he drove “the colours about till he has expressed the idea in his mind.” A few years later Joshua Cristall witnessed how he enlisted children’s doodles as a basis on which he could build and compared his compositions to a plate of sugar plums. What is significant is that he gradually introduced this tendency into his finished pictures, making them uniquely revolutionary.

A bit later his exhibited pictures were described, according to Hazlitt, as “pictures of nothing and very like.” That remark may have been inspired by Snow Storm – Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps of 1812. In a 1965 broadcast Michael Kitson declared that that was essentially a landscape, one in which the historical subject was unimportant.  Bowing to the fashion which now stresses the importance of history in Turner he later recanted. But, stand in front of the picture and consider what is particularly remarkable about it and one is hit above all by the evocation of storm and the novel semi-abstract composition.  A generation later his Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory): Morning after the Deluge was avowedly part abstract.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)

Turner in some of his late works was bifocal, casting his gaze simultaneously on two quite distinct topics.   His interpreters today tend to be monocular.  Many,  having given little if any thought to the matter and seeing that these experts have studied the artist for decades, too readily accept their pronouncements.

In vain did P. G.Hamerton, relating Cristall’s anecdotes in the 1870s, appeal to “every candid reader” to agree that “we have a mind … seeking colour combinations for themselves, without reference to the truth of Nature.”  Truth to Nature he maintained was not, as Ruskin said, Turner’s goal. Hamerton, it is now countered, was influenced by Aestheticism.  Today we can see that both Ruskin and Hamerton were people of their ages, more anxious to contradict others than to arrive at a balanced view.  It never seems to occur to today’s writers, however, that they too may have a view distorted by the present, represented by either artistic or intellectual fashion, which is more a matter of reaction than of perception.

What Gowing argued for, by contrast, was to see Turner whole.  “Rather than picking and choosing, it seems better,” he wrote in The Sunday Times in 1974,

to journey wandering through the distinct and disconcerting changes – perhaps two dozen separate Turners, each of them worthy of more comprehension and credit than has sometimes been his lot.

That opportunity is now denied to us.  Snow-Storm – Steam Boat and the Deluge pair, representing the abstract tendency, are repeatedly sent on tour, the second lost to thieves for eight years. Others are either in the National Gallery or scattered around Tate Britain, some whimsically skied half out of sight.  Among these dispersed masterpieces are the Fighting Temeraire and Peace – Burial at Sea (Turner the Symbolist), Rain, Steam and Speed (the Impressionist), The Parting of Hero and Leander (the Romantic) and the great early seapieces with which he made his name, such as Calais Pier and The Shipwreck.

Peace - Burial at Sea

Rain, Steam and Speed

The Parting of Hero and Leander

Calais Pier

These last should of course receive their due as well as the late works.  But that cannot support the generalisation made by Michael Prodger, reviewing last year’s Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape at the Royal Academy, that Turner was the “most traditional” of the three, though “the most technically radical.”  Was the breakthrough of, say, Snow Storm – Steamboat really due more to new technique than to new vision?   It is moreover a sleight of hand to use the young Turner’s Dolbadern Castle (1800) as a fit comparison with the mature works of Gainsborough and Constable as Prodger and the exhibition seem to do.

Of Turner’s 1847 exhibit of the casting of a statue of Wellington, the Athenaeum’s critic spoke for the rest when he wrote,

Full of fine passages of chromatic arrangement, it has so little foundation in fact that the sense is merely bewildered at the unsparing hand which the painter has spread forth the glories of his palette.

Recently Dr Jan Piggott, invoking Turner’s words of decades earlier about “those mysterious ties that appear wholly to depend upon the association of ideas,” suggests all sorts of associations that Turner could have had in mind. One recalls also, however, Turner’s remark that Ruskin saw more in his works than he did. However that may be, the focus on content is the fashion of today, whereas the focus on the paint belongs to Turner’s own day, just the opposite of what Smiles and Wilton assert.

Wilton argues that the whole oeuvre represents a continuum,  the early works a premonition of the later ones, as Hazlitt’s famous remark in 1816 heralded. He declares that Turner’s idea was that his finished pictures should be displayed in rotation, whereas in fact the will said that they should be kept “constantly” in the Turner’s Gallery extension to the National Gallery. That, however, does not suit the Tate. When its previous régime planned the Clore Gallery, it said that all its Turner oils would normally be kept on view. The policy of the present one, however, is one of repeated rotation.

When I proposed in 1975 a separate gallery to reunite the Turner Bequest and to show Turner whole as Turner and many then wished, Wilton’s stated objection was that the bequest cannot show Turner whole, as it largely lacks his finished watercolours and especially those representing the summit of Turner’s achievement, the late Swiss ones. This objection was a red herring.  Put, in your imagination, a gallery composed solely of the exhibited oils and another of the finished watercolours.  Which would have the greater impact, which could withstand constant display, which would show the fullest range of Turner’s ambitions in subject and style?  If one turns to the popular books on Turner of today, one sees that the famous finished oils predominate among the reproductions.  At auction the oils fetch  by far the highest prices. In short the setting up of the watercolours at the expense of his major exhibits has done far more to confuse our ideas of Turner than those Wilton attacks.

The preference is natural in Wilton, who had his training in charge of the bequest watercolours at the British Museum, just as it is natural for him after a literary education to emphasise the literary aspects of Turner’s work. Gowing by contrast was an oil painter, and emphasised the importance of the way Turner handled oil paint.  Wilton, author of Turner in his Time, is concerned with the artist’s place among his British contemporaries; Gowing had a 20th century perspective, though acknowledging that Turner was steeped in 17th century painting.  It is hard to resist believing that both, like so many others, have seen Turner through their own selective spectacles, though Gowing had a clearly more catholic approach.

Gowing is not the only target of Wilton’s fire.  Other artists such as David Hockney and now Vija Celmins are accused of distorting Turner by selecting only watercolour sketches on which the artist never intended posterity to base its judgement of him.  But Turner did think (in a draft) of providing for his sketches to be shown in rotation with the finished pictures after his death, but only if the nation failed to build a Turner Gallery on to the National Gallery, in which case they would be shown temporarily in the cramped quarters of his house  – a provision which Wilton conflates with the actual terms of his bequest to the nation. So far from the sketches being purely “private” works, as is often claimed, they could be exhibited.  Moreover hundreds of them passed into private hands, presumably sold or given by the artist, something which Wilton fails to explain.  At that time connoisseurs and artists often considered an artist’s sketches as superior to his finished works, a Romantic notion, not a Modern invention.  In 1798 Farington noted, “At Christies. – best Wilson sold cheap.  His blots & sketches dear.”   W. J. Müller  wrote on the back of a picture of 1843 “left for some fool to finish and ruin”.  By contrast Turner’s academic oils, meat to modern historians, were largely spurned by contemporary collectors and their complicated subjects ignored by the critics.

Why Turner excluded his sketches from his bequest to the National Gallery tells us nothing about his attitude to them, but only about the nature of national galleries, which showed only finished works (without rotating them!). True, we do know that he resented his finished pictures being mistaken for sketches, which was easily done, as the distinction between the two in his later years could be slight.  He would not have put the sketch and work for exhibition on a par, as the latter had more content and ambition, and it is for that reason that the emphasis on the finished in his will should now be respected.

That said, the most popular Turner at the Tate is the unfinished oil Norham Castle – Sunrise. Did Turner simply never get round to finishing it, or did he think that it was perfect as it was and would only be finished by Müller’s “fool”?  Wilton and most scholars declare the first.  But in truth we do not know what Turner thought.   Sir Charles Eastlake, artist and Director of the National Gallery, when asked if the unfinished works were valuable as a guide to artists, replied,

I look upon every thing that Turner did, either in a finished or unfinished state, as excellent in art, and painters who are competent might learn much from his half-finished works.

The National Gallery Keeper, Ralph Wornum, by contrast, dismissed “many” of the unfinished oils as “mere botches; pieces of canvas with paint on them.”   When Eastlake and his fellow assessors determined which were finished and which unfinished, they were not absolutely certain where to draw the line.  This is because the late works blur the distinction to some extent.

Artists have always had a licence to take what they want from their predecessors, and there can be no objection to shows of sketches curated by Hockney or whoever to illustrate their view.  But museums do not have the right to be selective, in the process riding roughshod over the wishes of their artist-donor, in the effrontery of claiming to know better than the artist what he intended.  The effective corrective to temporary shows such as those at the Clore Gallery is the permanent display of the artist’s chief works in all their diversity and excellence as Turner intended.

That is not what the scholars want.  Like Pope’s waving groves, they “part admit, and part exclude the day.”  They are more interested in promoting their own views – of Turner as devotee of Nature, of the Sublime, of Colour, of Associationism etc.  Yet some Turners lack colour, are not sublime, have no associations or leave nature far behind.  And the scholars disagree amongst themselves as to which was Turner’s leading characteristic, and in the process are cavalier not only in describing the ideas of Turner, but of each other.  Anxious to assume the mantle of the late Dr John Gage, Eric Shanes denies that he saw any connection between Turner and the French Impressionists.  Yet Gage devoted three essays (1969-83) to expounding that and in 1999 ended his discussion of Turner and colour by citing the parentage of Monet as being from Turner via Ruskin.

Admittedly Gage contrasted views of the West Front of Rouen Cathedral by Turner (1832) and Monet (1892-4), saying that the latter sought colour harmony, whereas Turner introduced bright local colour.  The 1830s was a period when Turner briefly used new colours such as emerald green and when he checkmated Constable by painting a buoy bright red.  That trick was employed also by Constable and is regularly used by Turner’s successor as Professor of Perspective, Ken Howard, who, however, paints more in the tradition of Monet than of Turner!  Turner himself was also keen on harmony, and one can find plenty of works of the 1840s which are closer than his Rouen to Whistler or Monet. The evidence of artists such as Pissarro, Signac and Matisse that they appreciated Turner is indisputable, but those wanting to disassociate Turner entirely from Impressionism will have none of that.  Wilton asks why Turner alone has been seen as a precursor of such later movements.  His question provides its own answer.  What other of his contemporaries has resonated so much with later artists of various persuasions?  Hardly Cotman or Cox to the same degree.

Of course Monet and Turner were very different artists.  So were Turner and Constable, but one does not hear the same critical passion spent on those differences as from those anxious to disassociate Turner from all later developments. Why? Neil MacGregor, when Director of the National Gallery, conceding that Turner is shown “not as he expected” , said that

…in the Tate Gallery … he is shown as the pivot of the British landscape tradition; in the National Gallery he is a giant on a European scale.

This justification does not convince. How was Turner such a pivot, when he had virtually no followers in Britain, and was admired in France and America? Of course the contrary claim suits the Tate well, and in furtherance of it Turner’s idea for showing his work together and distinct is sabotaged further by introducing works by others into the Clore and dispersing the Turners through Tate Britain.  Curators, relying on prejudice rather than their eyes, imagine that works of the same date and place will naturally show important affinities.  Yet in the recreation in 2009 of a Blake exhibition two centuries before an “attempt to place Blake in the artistic context of his time” by showing also two works by Turner also exhibited in 1809 was dubbed “ludicrous” by the Tate’s former Keeper of British Painting, Martin Butlin.

Sir Joshua Reynolds told Edmund Burke that, in distinction to foreign painters,

…you may observe here, as an emblem of the Freedom of the Country, every artist has taken a different road to what he conceives to be excellence.

The Revd. James Dallaway echoed this in 1800:

Perhaps it might be difficult to assign to the English school, as exhibited in the Royal Academy, any perfect discrimination, as each painter either implicitly follows his own genius, or attaches himself to that particular manner of the foreign schools which approaches nearest to his own ideas of excellence.

Two years later the Monthly Magazine wrote that Turner’s pictures “do not resemble those of any other artist.”  That opinion was repeated endlessly down the generations.  In 1964 Sir John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin opined that

Turner’s claim to fame rests … on his own achievement, not on his place in art-historical development.

John Gage said that “Turner left far fewer traces of his contact with contemporary art than with that of the Old Masters.”  The son of his oldest friend, Trimmer, recalled,

I never heard him [Turner] speak highly of modern pictures … I think he hardly did justice to his brother landscape-painters, most of whom, I fear, he considered beneath criticism.

Though Turner was imbued  with the Romantic spirit, manifested more in literature and music than by his fellows at the RA,  he saw the task of the artist to be a prophetic one, not to act as a mirror. Born into the age of oil lamps, he matured in the age of gas lighting, as the Punch cartoon slyly noted. In Rain Steam and Speed he seemed not so much to document a contemporary phenomenon as to herald a world that was going to go faster.

What all agree is that for the half century after his death Turner had no followers to speak of in Britain.  In 1903 George Gissing wrote that,

…one reason for the long neglect of Turner lies in the fact that his genius does not seem to be truly English.

If he was appreciated by English artists after c.1900, it is significant that these were those who came under the sway of the French Impressionists, not the lions of the Chantrey Bequest.  Turner himself seems, in his annotations to the writing of Opie and Shee,  to have made a distinction between patriotism and “Nationality with all her littleness”, the “riggid adherence to [national] forms and customs” having a debilitating effect, as the French preoccupation with drawing demonstrated.

One may agree with Smiles and Wilton that the exhibition of Turner’s unfinished works over the last century has sometimes given a false idea of his modernity.  But the alternative is not to put him back in a box at Tate Britain as part of a historical sequence.  Turner was far too varied to fit into such a straitjacket.  His genius has been described as Shakespearian, by which is meant that his mind was like Shakespeare’s, a sponge which soaked up ideas from all sorts of sources, its fertility having fructified in times remote from his own.  It is clearly impractical to show such influences radiating in all directions in the linear confines of a display.  Gowing and others have seen this and the consequent value of showing his work separately.  In 1856 the Art Journal wrote that “None but himself can be his parallel.”  In 1974 Gowing echoed,

It seems that Turner is one of those artists who require to be read in a context which they created for themselves. Others may imply the whole story in every single work; … But with some artists each separate work contributes to the significance of all the rest; it is as if the oeuvre as a whole had a vast syntax of its own, which we must recapture if we are to weigh its meaning … The more of his work that is seen together, the more apparent the quality of truth in the hyperbole.

Hamerton objected to the stipulation of Turner’s first bequest involving juxtaposition of his work with Claude’s.

It is always a mistake to suppose that two great artists can be compared with anything like a critical result, for the simple reason that originality is an essential part of greatness and that two originalities are not proper subjects of greatness.

From a purely aesthetic view he was surely right, though Turner’s idea has to be seen as less of an art historical statement than as a response to the depreciation of the moderns as compared with the old masters.

My proposal in 1975 for a separate Turner Gallery was the best means of realising Gowing’s aim and of honouring the central wish of Turner for his main bequest: that of keeping his main works  permanently on view in a dedicated “gallery” (which alternately he situated at his projected almshouse or at the National Gallery).  This was predictably opposed by the three museums sharing the bequest, and still is by the two which yet now divide it.  So also by the curators, who exhibited the same retentive reflexes.  Robert Medley, who echoed the plea made by A. J. Finberg in 1939 for an “unedited” presentation of Turner, wrote in The Spectator in 1976 that “it is perhaps naïve to expect them to support proposals so contrary to the momentum of their careers.”   Their response has been shortsighted, narrow and self-defeating.

The public could be left to make up its own mind about Turner.  It would be quite capable of doing so if the Turner Bequest was fully and systematically displayed.  For that a proper Turner’s Gallery is needed at least three times the size of the Clore Gallery and free from the depredations of the national galleries and the vogue for travelling exhibitions.

That, however, has not only been opposed by Wilton, but has filled Professor William Vaughan with alarm.  “All of us can recall,” he has said, “the melancholy experience of going to visit a gallery dedicated to the works of an artist who was once revered but has since fallen out of favour.” He did not name any examples, but maybe he was thinking of the Watts Gallery, which, however, since he wrote in 1990 has undergone a renaissance.  But does he really equate Turner with Watts rather than with the handful of all-time greats who have never really lost favour? What about the hugely popular museums devoted to artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Dalì?

The guard against a decline in Turner’s popularity, Vaughan argued,  lay in the hands of historians who would situate Turner in his proper academic context. How will the popularity of Turner be increased by telling the public that it is wrong to admire especially Norham Castle – Sunrise, the subject of the most popular postcard at the Tate, and should focus instead on early academic imitations of past masters dealing with subjects unfamiliar to it?  It is like saying that people will only continue to love famous operas if they study in depth the sometimes feeble libretti and the finer points of musicology.

The public for the most part is astonished when told about these Turner debates, as they go to an exhibition to see the works, not to read all about them.  If they enjoy Norham Castle, it is not because Gowing or someone else has told them they should. Maybe Wilton thinks that somehow a modernist miasma hangs in the air and that people unknowingly imbibe it, and it requires someone like him to vaccinate them against this infection.  Scholarship should not regulate taste, but be at hand for those – a minority – who want to know more.  Unfortunately all too often people leave the Clore Gallery “for Turner” (but now for anything that goes) disappointed and confused.

SELBY WHITTINGHAM is an arts writer, and founder and secretary of the Independent Turner Society

 

 

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