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Turner and his debt to Claude

24 April 2012

Nicholas Cranfield makes comparisons

Inspiration: Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648, by Claude (1604/05?-1682) ©THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

Inspiration: Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648, by Claude (1604/05?-1682) ©THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

THE most recent world première I attended was of Absolute Jest, a new work by John Adams commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for its centennial season this year. Written for string quartet and orchestra the work was premièred by Michael Tilson Thomas and the St Lawrence String Quartet (amp­lified).

The composer, a maverick American if ever there was one, says that he was inspired by Beethoven’s piano sonatas and the quartets.

A programme note reminded us of Stravinsky’s use of 18th-century melodies for his Pulcinella, whereas Adams offers a much more discrete tribute, avoiding what Harold Bloom famously called “the anxiety of in­fluence”, which often leaves a later creative artist in obvious debt to a predecessor.

The current exhibition at the National Gallery, organised with the collaboration of Tate Britain, brings J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) into focus through the earlier 17th- century French painter Claude Lorrain. In particular, it sets out to examine how Turner captured light.

It is well known that Turner himself, by the terms of his will, left the National Gallery his Dido Build­ing Carthage (1815), and the earlier Sun Rising Through Vapour on the condition that they were always to be hung between two admired paint­ings by Claude (Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, both 1648). This arrangement, as the last room in the exhibition demonstrates, has not always been so honoured.

The exhibition brings together a baker’s dozen of the former French pastry chef’s paintings and also includes a small roundel landscape, the only original that Turner him-self owned and admired, which, ironically, proves not to be by Claude at all. But most of the paintings and sketches in the show are by the much-loved English Romantic artist.

Is there more to link the two artists than the provision of Turner’s much contested last testament? In particular, is the debt more akin to that of Stravinsky or of Adams?

Turner’s early sketchbooks cer­tainly demonstrate that there is, in the years before 1819, which hap­pened to be both the first year when he visited and saw Italy for himself and the year in which Richard Earlom (1743-1822) published his volumes of Claude.

Claude had recorded sketches of 195 of his paintings in paper books, entering the name of the purchaser on the back of each, and entitled the set “the book of truth”. He fully intended that this Liber Veritatis should authenticate the canvases that were his autograph works.

Without direct experience of Italy, and without the published version of Claude’s celebrated paintings, artists such as Turner had to rely on works that they could see in private collec­tions, since, as this exhibition makes clear, there was no National Gallery at the time.

Turner got into Buckingham House, and was thus able to see Claude’s View of the Roman Campagna from Tivoli (it is still in Buckingham Palace), but it was seemingly two particular paintings that brought him to his love of Claude.

In 1799, William Beckford (later of Fonthill Abbey fame) returned to London from French-occupied Rome, where he had acquired two large im­portant landscapes by Claude. Both are now in the collection of Lord Fairhaven at Anglesey Abbey and are here strikingly shown in the first room; Father of Psyche sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo (1662) and The Arrival of Aeneas before the City of Pallanteum (1675).

In his “Studies for Paintings” sketchbook, we get to see how Turner used watercolour to catch the land­scape composition of the latter with an enviable bravura. But with figures he was less than successful. Indeed, throughout the exhibition, if there is ever any doubt about which artist painted which picture, look at the figures. Claude could paint them, and Turner simply could not.

In 1799, a 30-year-old London jobbing artisan and book illustrator left his father’s studio to travel to Australia. John William Lewin was Australia’s first professional artist to arrive in the colony as a free man, and, before his death in 1819, he set out to record the country’s flora and fauna, as well as the topography of the fledgling communities of Sydney Cove and Newcastle.

What is remarkable about his watercolours and paintings, as the current exhibition in the State Library of New South Wales (until 27 May) amply demonstrates, is the degree to which Lewin’s observation is at first informed by what he took for granted from being a Londoner, and then begins to change, radically.

His are the first European paint­ings of wombats (1801) and a koala with her young (1803), but they betray his knowledge of English animals. He had begun as a con­ventional natural-history illustrator, but his later studies of flowers and plants changed him.

Turner’s encounter with Italy for the first time, in the same year as Lewin died, changed how he saw Italian light much more than his study of Claude ever could have achieved if he had never left the draw­ing rooms of the London nobility.

As a result, this exhibition changes gear about halfway through; the compositional devices may still owe much to Claude, who memorably spent most of his time out of doors, simply observing light, but Turner becomes his own man, even if he still cannot paint figures.

In the third room of this ex­hibition, there are two small-scale views of Tivoli by Claude from the 1640s, both of which are owned by the British Museum. They are superb for the economy of line achieved by pen and brown ink and brown wash. Alongside them, Turner, whether using watercolours, gouache, or pencil, shows just how powerful the effect of seeing Italy for himself had been. Those views from the “Naples, Rome C. Studies” sketchbook are certainly the equal of his chosen master’s.

The same room has two mag­nificent works; Claude’s Hagar and the Angel (1646), which Turner would have also seen in Sir George Beaumont’s house at 34 Grosvenor Square; and Turner’s Modern Italy — the Pifferari, which he exhibited in 1838, a decade after Beaumont’s death. Claude’s biblical invention is perhaps a little disingenuous. There is too much water for it to be really faithful to Genesis 16 (likewise. Turner leads Tobias and the Angel to the waters of Tivoli), but the as­surance of the angel’s outstretched arm and the way in which Hagar is startled is deeply moving.

If I have majored on Turner’s Italian views, it is not because traces of Claude are not present in other works on show, but because they strike me as the more successful, and because, consciously or otherwise, Turner thereby introduced some Southern light into the gloom of late-Hanoverian England. As a modernist, Turner could paint keel­men bringing in coal by night, a regatta at East Cowes, Kirkstall lock on the Aire, or even Birmingham at sunset. But here Romanticism has become an imposition, and not always a healthy one.

And is Turner more Stravinsky than Adams? At first, I thought so; but, once he had seen Italy for himself, the balance shifted, subtly at first and then irreversibly, as he painted light in a way that Claude could never have imagined. This is just as well, since Turner did not die until the year in which Frederick Scott Archer invented the Collodion process, in which images required only a couple of seconds of exposure to light.

“Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 5 June. Phone 020 7747 2885.

“Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 5 June. Phone 020 7747 2885.


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