A LIFE-LONG PASSION FOR THE SEA: JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER (1774-1851)Category: Architecture + Painting
Turner did not begin oils until he was about twenty-one, his first exhibited oil-painting apparently being The Fishermen at Sea, off the Needles of 1796. It is typical of Turner to have begun the medium by attacking the difficult problem of moonlight.
Profound as Turner’s love of the mountains was, it was scarcely so fundamental as his love of the sea. He had been feeding his eyes on waves and storms, upon clouds and vapour. Here the value of his splendid visual memory is evident. A wave cannot be drawn slowly and stolidly; it will not sit still to have its portrait painted. For this reason most painters reduce their waves as a whole to a formula. Turner alone by constant observation and by a consequent thorough knowledge of wave forms and of the rules that they obey, has given to his seas mass and weight as well as movement. The sea in itself absorbed him, but especially the sea as it affected ships. To a sailor, and Turner was at heart a sailor, a Ship is a living creature, courageous and loyal, resourceful, yet pathetically in need of help. Her curves, like those of a human figure, are beautiful because they are of use. In drawing ships Turner shows a knowledge that springs from love; his actual manual dexterity, which is always remarkable, being never more astonishing than when he is firmly yet delicately delineating masts and rigging. If Turner sympathised with ships, he sympathised equally with the men within them and loved to depict fishermen pulling at oars or sailors grappling with ropes. He only cared in fact to portray the mood of the sea as it affected the experiences of man.
Calais Pier is one of Turner’s grandest creations. The more it is studied the more actual the vision of a storm becomes. An immense amount of detail has been brought together, but not more than Turner’s phenomenal memory might have retained. In obedience to what he has seen, Turner has defined the nearer figures on the pier more sharply, and has allowed the farther groups to fade into vagueness and darkness, renewing the emphasis again upon the “people in the boat in the centre, which is lit by a gleam of sunlight. The composition gains unity from the concentration in the centre of the picture of two masses of light upon the sky above and upon the waves below, which are both joined by the light upon the sail of the central boat, while the scene is more real, because of Turner’s complete knowledge of how the various crafts are tossed and swayed and borne up in a storm. Those who look at the picture can smell the spray and hear the din of the water and the shout of the deafening wind.
A study of Calais Pier should vindicate Turner as a draughtsman of human beings. All the figures are living individuals, from the lady in purple whose dress is blown back by the wind, to the angry fisherman, whose wife hides the cider behind the rail of the pier.
After his continental tour in 1802, his eyes seemed to have been opened to the beauty of a type of English scenery that he had-hitherto neglected. Up till now he had painted mainly ruins, stormy seas, and frowning mountains now he began to choose subjects from agricultural’or pastoral country and often from scenes with trees and water. If the spirit of his earlier works was akin to Byron’s, this new mood might be called Wordsworthian, though Turner had probably not read Wordsworth’s poetry, but rather was inspired, like the poet, by the spirit belonging to the age.
Turner’s characteristic works of this new phase (1805—1813) are painted without a hint of that self-conscious theatricality that was his most serious failing, in close communion with Nature. His greatest masterpieces of the period are Windsor and Sun Rising through Vapour.
In Windsor the bare tree on the left has been drawn with the utmost care and precision without any loss to its general poise or to its relation to the atmosphere. Its supple growth and the free irregular shapes of the other trees make the happiest of foils to the distant mass of the castle, whose vertical and horizontal contours are purposely emphasized. A similar contrast is repeated in the foreground between the more mobile figures and the rectangular group of animals, so that every detail in the picture plays its part in the composition.
Unfortunately some of the delicacy of tones is lost in a reproduction; and only in the original do the trees and castle appear completely substantial. Colour, as well as tone, has produced this effect of distance, of mist and of growing sunlight. The colour has in general a golden warmth, to which the eye must become accustomed before the truth of such tints as the cloaks of the two stooping old women, one red and one purple, can be fully appreciated.
The year 1829 was a turning point in Turner’s career. About then he began to adopt his final, and in many ways his most original style as a colourist. In 1829 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus was exhibited. Turner had then already begun to use in oil the gorgeous colour schemes with which he had earlier experimented in watercolour, and which were the marked characteristic of the last twenty years of his life. From then till 1845 he painted what are in many ways his most original masterpieces. Hitherto his work had been in some sense traditional; with his unique powers of observation and invention he had perfected the kind of painting for which Claude and Poussin, the Dutch masters, Gainsborough and Crome and the English water-colourists culminating in Girtin had prepared the way. He had surpassed them indeed in their own field, but had not appreciably departed from their aims. Now at the age of 54 his works began to be in a style for which there was absolutely no precedent.
After over forty years of severe discipline as a draughtsman, his hold upon structure has begun to relax; and he is now absorbed exclusively in rendering colour, light and atmosphere.
In some cases, especially after 1840, Turner’s inspirations were of too vague a nature to be translated into a picture; of this Light and Colour of 18», is an example.
1838 is the date of the Fighting Temerctire. If any one of Turner’s works had to be chosen to exemplify the rest and to sum up all his powers it would have to be this. It contains all the definite drawing of his earlier works without any loss of colour; and all the glory of the later colour without any vagueness. It has all his splendour of invention, with all his depth of feeling. It is significant that he refused to sell it and that it is said to have been his favourite among his works. The beautiful golden battle-ship, whose days are over, her mast slightly swaying, is being towed to her last resting place by an ugly modern sn-orting tug, which belches forth hot brown smoke. Those who have seen sunsets over the sea will easily believe in the truth of the magnificent colours in the sky. Here again as in Frosty Morning, Turner has painted an effect of the passing of time; but while in the earlier picture light is increasing, here the sun is sinking; the day is tired; little flecks of dark are rising in the sky; the young moon has already dimly appeared; the darkness is gathering and soon the colours will fade.
In painting marine subjects, Turner always retained the severity of his earlier drawings. His knowledge of mass and volume as well as of the rhythmic movement of natural forces can be seen in the apparently chaotic Snowstorm of 1842. In order to witness the effect, though he was sixty-seven years old, he had himself lashed to the mast of the ship Ariel. The convincing reality of this record is one of the many proofs of his unerring powers of visual memory.
The vast total quantity of Turner’s work is also one of the marks of his genius.
(From English Painting from the Seventh Century to the Present Day by Ch. Johnson)