12 January 2015

Late Turner at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) has been the subject of only two posts here. The first was about the National Gallery show in 2012, Turner Inspired, which examined the influence of Claude Lorrain on Turner’s early work, the second, last month, was about Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner which dramatized the last 25 years or so of the painter’s life. Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free complements the film in looking works from 1835 to the late 1840s. Turner’s reworking of The Wreck Buoy (1849 over 1807, below) was described by his admirer Ruskin as "...the last oil he painted before his noble hand forgot its cunning."

At the risk of being simplistic, a visitor may well conclude that once over 60 and so established in his profession as having nothing to lose, Turner painted as he wanted, undertaking a continuous experiment with colour and form. We see these works through eyes conditioned by impressionism, abstraction and much else that came after him, but that should serve to amplify Turner’s achievements not detract from them. (Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph pointed out that Turner’s eye may have been conditioned too – by cataracts and other health problems). Of the two famous works mentioned in the Mr Turner post, the National Gallery has lent Rain, Steam and Speed but not Temeraire, but its absence is more than made up for by Peace - Burial at Sea of the Body of Sir David Wilkie (1842, below top), one of nine square paintings disliked by his contemporaries and now brought together at Tate Britain, and Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water (1842, below lower):

This exhibition provides a welcome opportunity to see a range of Turner’s watercolours, like Norham Castle, Sunrise (c1845, below top) and Heidelburg: Sunset (c1842, below lower):

the three Mount Rigi watercolours of 1842 brought together for the first time, one from Australia: The Red Rigi (1842, below top)

and one of his Margate pictures Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset (1845, above lower). The National Gallery and Tate Britain’s holdings of Turner’s work are based on the artist’s bequest to the nation, so this exhibition offers a chance to see loans from abroad like The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835, below), less familiar but of historical interest here and normally in Philadelphia:

Tate Britain has also put on display many of Turner’s note and sketchbooks. The latter emphasise just how intrepid and frequent a traveller he was even in late middle age and at the time before the European railway systems had been established.

Late Turner – Painting Set Free ends on 25 January.

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