Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water exhibited 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water, 1840

At Greenwich we went to see the current exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – Turner and the Sea – which brings together a large number of Turner’s most celebrated seascapes.  Turner had a lifelong fascination with the sea, and wrestled throughout his career with the challenge of how to represent the natural forces of wave and wind, mist and cloud, on canvas.

Turner was, in Ruskin’s words, ‘the man who beyond doubt is the greatest of the age . . . at once the painter and poet of the day’, and so this exhibition is bound to be significant.  For me, its particular excitement resides in the late experimental canvases and the large number of impressionistic watercolours from Turner’s sketchbooks that are on display.

The exhibition adopts a strictly chronological approach, meaning that the first two or three room present more traditional early works (though with evidence of experimentation even here), including one room devoted to his huge patriotic oil painting celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar, which is, to be honest, an embarrassment.

In the early stages of the exhibition, the curators set out to reveal some of the influences on Turner and to show the extent to which Turner was an accomplished showman from the start of his career, strategically displaying works to generate patronage and publicity. He used marine painting to explore dramatic subjects and introduce dynamic colours that commanded the viewer’s attention in crowded and tightly hung galleries.

Turner exhibited a series of impressive and often controversial canvases at the Royal Academy summer exhibition, the most important art event in London at the time. In 1804 he built his own gallery, attached to his house in Harley Street.

Fishmarket on the Sands - Hastings, 1810

Fishmarket on the Sands – Hastings, 1810

‘Fishmarket on the Sands – Hastings’, painted in 1810, is hung alongside Simon de Vlieger’s ‘Beach at Scheveningen’ to reveal Turner’s debt to the Dutch 17th century landscape tradition.

Simon de Vlieger, The Beach at Scheveningen

Simon de Vlieger, The Beach at Scheveningen, 1633

Another illustration of Turner’s love for Dutch landscape painting is from much later in his career – ‘Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael’. By the early 1840s, when Turner painted this work, his exhibited pictures were often astonishingly spare in the way they were finished.

Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael, 1844

Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael, 1844

The ‘Port Ruysdael’ of the title is imaginary – Turner’s tribute to the work of the seventeenth-century artist, Salomon von Ruysdael which he first encountered during his first visit to the Louvre in 1802. He remained an admirer of the Dutch artist’s work throughout his career. When Turner entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1789, marine painting had a long and prestigious history, notably the work of artists from the Netherlands and France.

Fishermen at Sea, 1796

Fishermen at Sea, 1796

‘Fishermen at Sea’ was the first oil painting that Turner exhibited, and shows the young artist’s command of the continental tradition of marine painting.  Whist Turner studied the art of the past at every opportunity, he also understood the importance of giving his art contemporary relevance. This was a time when revolution across the Channel, resulting in a new war with France from 1793 onwards, lent a patriotic importance to the art of the sea for British artists and their public.

Turner enjoyed the public acclaim he received, and relished the sense of competition that was encouraged by the London art world. Whether painting in oil or watercolour, he always wanted to be better (and charge more) than any other painter. He followed his fellow artists closely, especially those he most admired, and was quick to respond if ever their work threatened to overshadow his own. In the 1820s, a new generation of marine painters emerged to challenge his position. They often followed Turner’s example by emulating the style of painting that had first brought him to public attention. Turner responded by taking his work in a new direction.

Keelmen heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835

Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835

‘Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight’ was deliberately painted by Turner as an companion piece to the sun-drenched view of Venice below.  He contrasts the pleasure-seeking crowds of Venice with the hard labour of stevedores on the Tyne, transferring coal from barges, or keels, to ocean-going vessels.

Venice - The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834

Venice – The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834

The sea remained at the centre of Turner’s work until the end of his life, as he continued to explore the sights and spectacles of modern maritime Britain.  As he got older, though, he divided critics by experimenting with new and unconventional ways of representing the sea. When ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ was shown at the Royal Academy in 1842, it was met with disbelief. Turner’s response was to say that he didn’t paint it to be understood but simply ‘to show what such a scene was like’.

In later years, his work also became more reflective, both personally and of his own time – ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ being a good example.  The ‘Temeraire’ had played a distinguished role in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, after which she was known as the ‘Fighting Temeraire’. The ship remained in service until 1838 when she was decommissioned and towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up.

Turner’s main concern in the painting was to evoke a sense of loss, rather than to give an exact recording of the event. The spectacular representation of the setting sun draws a parallel with the passing of the old warship. By contrast the new steam-powered tug is smaller and more prosaic.  It’s the end of an era.  However, as Adrian Hamilton wrote in the Independent:

Look more closely and you see that Turner pays as much attention to the setting sun on the right of the picture as to the Temeraire kept on the left. For all the temptation to interpret this as Turner’s elegy to a dying world of the sail-ship, it’s hard not to see it also as a study of light and reflection.

The Fighting Temeraire, 1838

The Fighting Temeraire, 1838

Turner was in his sixties when he painted ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. It shows his mastery of painting techniques to suggest sea and sky, as much as Turner’s  desire to offer a commentary on his time. As Richard Dorment observed in his review for the Telegraph:

Throughout his career Turner was always drawn to current events, sketching the ruins of a theatre on the day after a fire, or the burning of the Houses of Parliament as it was happening. As we see in this show his method was to fill notebooks with quick sketches that became the raw data he used for finished landscapes and seascapes in watercolours or oils. It’s what he did with that data that is the key to understanding Turner’s art. For his landscapes and seascapes divide broadly into two categories – the accurate topographical views which are primarily intended to convey information and the landscapes and seascapes in which he omitted, distorted or added details to express his thoughts on history, nature, politics or society.

Sunset amid Dark Clouds over the Sea,

Sunset amid Dark Clouds over the Sea, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

For me, the best has been kept to the end in this exhibition – the last two rooms bring together an astounding collection of the late, impressionistic oil paintings, and examples of pages from his sketchbooks. I know the watercolours from Turner’s sketchbooks are not finished works but quick impressions intended to be worked up later.  Nevertheless, I love them; to a modern eye they speak of nature, landscape and light as brilliantly as any finished work.

There are exhibits from two sketchbooks – the Whalers Sketchbook filled around 1844, and the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbook of 1845.  Turner was rarely without a sketchbook and colours, whether working at home or during his many journeys throughout Britain and on the continent. At the end of his life, around 20,000 of his drawings and watercolours, together with numerous unfinished oil paintings, were left to the nation as the Turner Bequest. Since his death in 1851, these once-private studies have helped shape Turner’s reputation as much as the oil paintings and watercolours that were finished and exhibited during his lifetime.

The Sea,

The Sea, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

Whalers at Sea at Sunset,

Whalers at Sea at Sunset, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

Whalers at Sea,

Whalers at Sea, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

The Whalers’ sketchbook features pages in which Turner has used coloured chalk with watercolour washes to convey the urgency and violence of a whale hunt (though the whale remains elusive), while the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbook was made during Turner’s penultimate visit to France in May 1945.  Most of the pages record impressions of light and colour, as seen from the beach at Ambleteuse.

A Storm Clearing Up,

A Storm Clearing Up, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

Storm Clouds, Looking Out to Sea,

Storm Clouds, Looking Out to Sea, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

Sunset at Ambleteuse,

Sunset at Ambleteuse, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

Yellow Sun over Water,

Yellow Sun over Water, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

In addition to the sketchbook pages, the exhibition also presents several exquisite, minimalist watercolours from the Tate and Manchester Art Gallery collections, all of them dating from the early 1840s.  They are from a consignment of fourteen sketches on millboard only discovered in the early 1960s.  They were in a parcel among the works from the Turner Bequest transferred from the Tate Gallery to the British Museum in 1931, and had not been included in the 1909 inventory of the works in the Bequest.

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, c1843-5

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, c 1843-5

Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds, c1840-5

Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds, c 1840-5

Red Sky over a Beach, c1840-5

Red Sky over a Beach, c 1840-5

Sunset on Wet Sand, 1845

Sunset on Wet Sand, 1845

In his final seascapes, Turner broke free from the established rules and conventions of maritime art (or of art generally at the time). He began a series of experimental canvases that revealed a deepening interest in the open sea and a quest to capture the effects of breaking waves in paint. Experts remain divided as to whether some of Turner’s last works, were finished paintings or unfinished ‘works-in-progress’; this is the Tate’s summing up of the matter:

Two main problems about this group of works. The first is the question of dating: the dates adopted here are highly tentative and are based on the supposition that there is a logical progression from a more substantial, three-dimensional style to one that is more impressionistic and less solid, together with a feeling that Turner’s colouring was perhaps at its strongest from the early to the mid 1830s. However, as will be noted, the compilers do not always agree on even the tentative datings given here. In any case, what may look like a less three-dimensional picture may in fact be merely a less finished picture.

However, as with the watercolours, a modern viewer has no qualms about treating them as finished works. Adrian Hamilton again, from the Independent:

The watercolours and the oil sketches, even the earlier ones on display from the 1820s, are experimental enough as you witness Turner using rapid strokes of colour to catch the thrashing of water and the looming of cloud over the horizon. No artist has ever been able to use red the way he does to give urgency to the scene and mood to the weather.

But what leaves you gasping is that he does exactly the same with his late oils on canvas as he did with the watercolours. Whether he intended these oils, stacked away in his studio, as finished works or rough drafts we don’t know. But presented along the walls of the final room they are art of a different dimension. Even in the wonderful  ‘Whalers (The Whale Ship)’ of 1845,   the ship is surrounded by a seething mass of whale, wave and weather that defy all rules of realism. In the three paintings that are considered final works but have no date – ‘Waves Breaking Against the Wind’, ‘Seascape with Storm Coming On’ and ‘Seascape with Distant Coast’ – there is no point in saying what they are about. They just are – without rules, without objects, without composition – pure paint and pure sensation.

Off the Nore - Wind and Water, oil on paper laid on canvas, c1840-45

Off the Nore – Wind and Water, oil on paper laid on canvas, c 1840-45

Whalers, 1845

Whalers (The Whale Ship), 1845

‘Whalers’ was the first of two whaling subjects Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1845 (followed by two more in 1846), probably painted in the hope of selling them to his patron Elhanan Bicknell, an investor in the whaling industry.  The four pictures were inspired by Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), with this painting based on an account of the pursuit of a whale in the North Pacific. At the right the creature has been harpooned and is bleeding, while men in three boats stand with their arms raised to strike again. Some accounts suggest that it was this painting that provided Herman Melville with the inspiration for Moby Dick.

A Wreck, with Fishing Boats c.1840-5
A Wreck, with Fishing Boats c.1840-5

Turner made many of his later seascapes powerfully immediate and disorientating by not including any foreground or landscape reference points. This absence of traditional framing devices immerses the viewer more directly in the tempestuous scene.  In ‘A Wreck’ the paint suggesting the white crests of the waves is vigorously applied, often with a palette knife. In the distance are the sails of one or two smaller boats alongside the bluish hull of a much bigger wrecked ship, possibly recalling an incident Turner witnessed off the coast of Kent.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842

Turner painted many pictures exploring the effects of an elemental vortex. In ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, there is a steam-boat at the heart of the vortex, perhaps seen by Turner as a symbol of man’s futile efforts to combat the forces of nature.  This is the painting which, it is said, Turner conceived while lashed to the mast of a ship during a storm at sea, though the story is probably apocryphal.

Jackie Wullschlager, reviewing the exhibition for the Financial Times, said this:

Vortex-like compositions, suggesting history’s repetitions as doomed cycles of catastrophe and of man sucked to his fate recur in Turner. They are the violent side of the Victorian anxiety, which found sentimental expression in the “Temeraire” – and they shocked contemporaries. “Soapsuds and whitewash” was the response of one critic to “Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842), built up from looping swaths of dark/white impasto and conflicting diagonals, and exhibited with the provocatively realist subtitle “The Author was in this Storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich”.

At Greenwich, this is joined by further maelstrom masterpieces from the US: the Clark Institute’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to warn Steam-boats of Shoal-Water” (1840), in which smoke, steam, spume and spray swirl into dissolutions of pure light and colour; Yale’s “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” (1832), recording a storm Turner encountered in the Highlands in a steamboat, at the moment when “the sun getting towards the horizon burst through the rain-cloud, angry”. Romanticism’s great theme was man’s insignificance before nature’s overwhelming force; Turner’s whipped-up vortices gave it a new language, infused with Victorian pessimism about impermanence and meaninglessness. Even more than mountains, the sea was Turner’s natural element, allowing the most extreme expression of his fatalism.

Seascape with Distant Coast, c 1840

Seascape with Distant Coast, c 1840

Seascape with Storm Coming On, c 1840

Seascape with Storm Coming On, c 1840

Whether or not these are unfinished works, they provide an opportunity to study Turner’s technique, revealing a great deal about how he built up his images. In ‘Seascape with Storm Coming On’, Turner has begun the work with two distinct areas of colour for sea and sky, washed in very broadly. He used a similar method in the large batch of watercolours known as ‘colour beginnings’ that he produced from the late 1810s onwards. The lower of the two areas is an extraordinary golden colour, permeated by passages of grey and black. The surface is further animated with light, but very deliberate, touches of white, green and brown.

Waves Breaking against the Wind, c.1840

Waves Breaking against the Wind, c.1840

In the 1830s and 1840s Turner made dozens of watercolours and oils based on close observation of the sea from the shore. Some of these were worked up into exhibited pictures, while others were used as studies for paintings, or left in an unfinished state.  In ‘Waves Breaking against the Wind’, the shadowy grey shape emerging through the mist may be the harbour wall and lighthouse at Margate, which is the subject of a related canvas, ‘Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore‘.

I think Adrian Hamilton in the Independent has it just right: the watercolours and late (possibly unfinished) seascapes in oil ‘leave you gasping’:

They just are – without rules, without objects, without composition – pure paint and pure sensation.

See also

2 thoughts on “Turner and the Sea: pure paint and pure sensation

  1. We did the visit to the national Maritime Museum in February only the other way round to you and ended up in Whitechapel after a lovely day of paintings, time lines, architecture, tunnels and boats. My six year old grandson was very taken with the painting of Victory making the comment that there were 45 gun holes and each side making 90 in all! We liked the unfinished painting as it showed how Turner built up the picture which made it very interesting.

  2. I don’t know who you are. I do know that you do a fantastically informative blog. Blogs like yours make art critics redundant. I saw the exhibition yesterday, checking out the critics afterwards, as I prefer not to be influenced by their opinions. That is how I found your blog and pictures.
    If you have time, please see my late husband’s website,
    Cyril Mann (1911-1980) could be the ‘son of Turner’, his biographer, John Russell Taylor, Times Art critic, calling his book ‘The Sun is God, the life and works of Cyril Mann’.
    I’m thrilled I found you. You have another follower!

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