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Art review: Turner’s Modern World at Tate Britain

by
02 July 2021

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Turner exhibition

Tate

Shields on the River Tyne (1823), watercolour on white wove watercolour paper, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. More paintings in the gallery

Shields on the River Tyne (1823), watercolour on white wove watercolour paper, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, accepted by the nation as part of the...

SEVEN and a half years ago, David Blayney Brown and Sam Smiles produced a documentary for BBC2, The Genius of Turner: Painting in the Industrial Revolution (I had to pinch myself that the BBC still espoused quality and intellectual excellence back then). This is their follow-up exhibition.

J. M. W. Turner’s life (1775-1851) spanned the coming of the Industrial Age. We see the Cockney painter of brilliant landscapes encountering scientific advance. The slave trade, parliamentary representation, Catholic Emancipation, and the survival of the Church of England were the hot topics of his day. The Napoleonic War raged, and an uneasy peace in Europe followed.

The exhibition will travel to Fort Worth and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. That, at least is the plan; restrictions have meant that London cannot see The Wreck of a Transport Ship (c.1810) from Lisbon, and we were told that Boston’s 1840 Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhon coming on) was too fragile to travel.

Wolverhampton Arts & CultureHigh Green, Wolverhampton (1795) by J. M. W. Turner. on loan

We, therefore, do not see the one painting that, for John Ruskin, assured Turner of immortality, in which he painted “the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror”.

Guilt would have brought a rather different focus to this show. At the age of 30, Turner had invested £100 for a cattle ranch to be overseen by slaves in Jamaica, but later he became an abolitionist, after losing his investment.

The TV programme outlined Turner’s interest in science. Humphry Davy’s sell-out lectures in Albermarle Street on Elements; the young pharmacist Luke Howard’s cloud classification; William Herschel’s observations of the sun and later Michael Faraday’s electromagnetic experiments — each informed his painting of a modern world, as did his friendship with Mary Somerville.

TateThe Northamption Election, 6 December 1830 (c.1830-31) by J. W. M. Turner, purchased by the Tate in 2007

It would have helped to have had some of that spelt out more clearly in an exhibition that otherwise risks being another rag-bag selection of popular and less well-known works. A wall of Trafalgar studies; his attempts at painting George IV’s Royal Progress in Scotland; the field of Waterloo alongside Hannibal crossing the Alps; and the Schorr Collection Devil’s Bridge, St Gothard, appear with little or no real link to modernity.

We begin in medias res: the 50-year-old Turner, taken up by a Fellow of the Royal Society, an agriculturalist engaged in improving his Sussex estates. Enter the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837). Egremont sponsored the Chichester canal on his Petworth property, which allowed barges to travel from London to Portsmouth. A profitable investment in the 1820s, it was rapidly overtaken by the coming of the steam train.

A discreet veil is drawn over the fact that Egremont sired some forty children outside wedlock, and that he set up a deportation company with his locally appointed Rector, shipping peasants and unemployed army veterans to Upper Canada, paying a £10 passage for each; the parish paid a further £10 for clothing and travel necessaries. His friendly patronage of Turner is his enduring claim to fame.

In the Railway Age, the only train that Turner ever painted (Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844) was the Great Western Railway locomotive heading into Theresa May’s constituency across Brunel’s viaduct, chasing a hare along the tracks. Next to it is Joseph Clement’s model of that “Firefly”-class locomotive (1838).

Snow-Storm — Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (exhibited 1842) by J. W. M. Turner, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Almost by way of a pendant, the 1842 Snow Storm with an offshore ship, on which Turner mendaciously claimed that he had journeyed battling against the raging sea, is (deliberately) painted like so many iron filings in a magnetic field. Evidently, he felt happier at sea; steamboats and the hulks of iron-clad ships abound.

But I missed seeing The Beacon Light off Margate (now that we know that it is not a fake; National Museum of Wales), and it is easy to overlook the watercolour Shields, which is his sketch for the great Claude-like painting of coal being loaded on the Tyne, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Midnight (1835, Washington DC), which is another notable absentee.

 

“Turner’s Modern World” is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 12 September. Timed tickets must be booked at: www.tate.org.uk

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