The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

Is the rowan tree still there in the garden of the house where I grew up? The thought occurred to me as I listened to the second of five talks by Fiona Stafford on The Meaning of Trees, broadcast last week in BBC Radio 3’s Essay strand (and available as a podcast download). Stafford had begun by explaining the Rowan’s popularity as a tree for suburban gardens – it’s easy to grow, is good on all kinds of soil, is low maintenance, and doesn’t grow too large.


For gardeners the tree has several benefits.  It’s a tree for all seasons – a kaleidoscope of changing colours  throughout the year, from creamy spring blossom and pistachio summer green to autumn’s bright scarlet berries.  It’s popular with bird-lovers because it’s a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.  The result is that rowans found in suburban streets and gardens all over Britain.

Yet this is a tree that first flourished in wild upland areas.  And, as Fiona Stafford suggested, it’s long experienced something of an identity crisis, bearing a confusion of names at various times.  ‘Rowan’ reflects the Viking influence in Scotland, since the word derives from the Old Norse reynir,meaning red. The tree’s popular name Mountain Ash is a double misnomer: although it had its origins in highland areas, the tree is now just as common in the south.  Moreover, it is not related to the Ash (the confusion arose because of the similarity between the pinnate leaves of the two species). Then there’s the Old English name of cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (where ‘quick’ = life). Fiona Stafford considered various explanations as to why, from Anglo-Saxon times, the tree should have acquired its association with life. Perhaps it derived from its use as charm for infertile land, or from the therapeutic value of the berries (they make an excellent gargle for sore throats, apparently), or maybe it was something to do with the quivering leaves.

So the rowan comes in many guises: white ash, mountain ash, quickbeam, whispering tree, witchwood. As Fiona Stafford explained, this shifting identity suits a tree that is at once safe and suburban and a tree sacred to antiquity, renowned for its protective powers. She spoke of how the rowan figures prominently in Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian traditions, its berries considered the food of the gods. It features in old Irish poems, and has many associations with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘ which means wizard’s tree. It also crops up in poems by Seamus Heaney, such as ‘Song’:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

This is the second series on The Meaning of Trees presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Like the first, this one explored the symbolism, economic importance,  and cultural significance of five trees common in the UK. While the first series considered the yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore, in the second Stafford discussed the rowan, pine, poplar, hawthorn and apple.

Klimt -pine-forest

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest, 1901

Before the discussing rowan, now flourishing in suburban gardens, Fiona Stafford had begun her series with another domesticated species – one that has found a place in almost every room of the house – and in providing key ingredients of many household products. Stafford was talking about the pine.  She began:

The year is 1975.  The summer is scorching, and people are starting to strip.

She’s talking about the new wave in furniture:

In the kitchen we have pine tables, dressers, cupboards; in the bedroom pine headboards, wardrobes and drawers; in the bathroom there’s more pine for the cabinets, towel rails, shelves and brush-holders.

Everyone, Stafford exclaimed, is going pine mad.  How true!  This was the era of Habitat and local artisans retailing reclaimed and freshly-stripped pine (or, with effort, you could do it yourself).  We, too – a young couple setting up home in our first flat – were part of this pine revival that was, in Stafford’s words, ‘a reaction against the polythene, plastic and polyester space age’.  Instead of lino and Formica that mimicked wood, we wanted the real thing.

A native of Scotland, economically the pine is the world’s most important tree.  There are not only the obvious uses in the furniture, building and paper industries, but also its medicinal properties in treating bronchitis and pneumonia for millennia and its resin, used to manufacture glues, gums, waxes, solvents and fragrances.  It’s the ultimate versatile tree, providing the base oil for emulsion paint, turpentine for cleaning brushes, pitch for waterproofing ships’ timbers – and licorice allsorts.

Drowned pine forest

The drowned pine and oak forest of Borth

The pine has been a British native tree for over 4000 years, with dark pine forests entering legends and fairytales.  Fiona Stafford told how, after the ferocious February storms, a prehistoric  drowned forest of pine and oak from between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago was revealed when thousands of tons of sand were stripped from beaches in Cardigan Bay.  At Borth the remains were exposed of a forest that once stretched for miles before climate change and rising sea levels buried it under layers of peat, sand and saltwater. The trees echo the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.

Pines on the Mediterranean

Wind-tossed pines on the Mediterranean coast at Giens, near Hyeres

Stafford spoke of the pine’s time-old ‘tendency to help and to heal’, now revealed in a new sense as scientists discover that pine scents create a cooling, aerosol effect as they rise. So a pine forest can actually create cloud cover – a natural mirror that reflects sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from the overheated earth.  But there was one use of pine not mentioned by Fiona Stafford – one to which I am addicted.  The seeds of the tree – called pine nuts – when harvested make a wonderful addition to many dishes, as well as being an essential ingredient of pesto sauce.  Stafford did, however, mention the heady scent of pine trees which I particularly associate with the Mediterranean.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, 1887

 Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887

Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Paul Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Something else overlooked by Stafford, but which I would have to mention in any discussion of pines, are Paul Cezanne’s paintings of pine trees which frame Mont Saint Victoire in his many paintings of that mountain.  Most powerful of all – and one of my absolute favourite paintings – is his portrait of The Great Pine.


A hawthorn in the Yorkshire Dales

“There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years’ child
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.

This is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Thorn’, cited by Fiona Stafford as an example of the fearsome reputation of the hawthorn, regarded throughout history as so unlucky that its blossom should never be brought into the house or displayed. Indeed, I remember when I was a child, my mother, who hailed from rural Derbyshire, would be horrified if we came back from a walk with hawthorn in amongst a bunch of wild flowers). This fear probably derived from the erroneous belief that Christ’s crown of thorns was of hawthorn. From the belief flowed the idea that to bring any part of the tree into a house – but most importantly the flowers – would result in someone in the house dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree was a bad idea for the same reason. As Stafford remarked in her talk, ‘Some terrifying force seems to lurk within this formidable tree – or rather in the minds of those who feel so threatened by its deeply feminine beauty’.

In spring, the hawthorn bursts into beautiful ‘May’ blossom. Every year, in Stafford’s words, ‘almost overnight the hawthorn turns white; huge heaps of flowers seemed to be dropped along the branches as if by some careless cook. For David Hockney, this is ‘action week’.  At his landmark exhibition in London a couple of years ago, a whole room was filled with ‘these huge, disturbing, custard-coated forms’ – a massive celebration of the magical, shape-changing hawthorn’.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Hockney, ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, 2009

Despite the hawthorn’s association with bad luck, the tree’s main association is with May, its blossom crowning May queens and adorning maypoles.  Its alternative name of May or May blossom reflects the fact that the flowering of the hawthorn is a sign that winter is over and spring is underway (although, given the British climate, May blossom might appear in April or as late as June).  Interestingly, the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out’ (a warning not to be precipitous in shedding any clouts or clothes) refers, not to the month of May, but to the understanding that summer has not arrived until the May blossom is out.

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

Coincidentally, Paul Evans, one of the finest observers of the natural world writing at present, has this week devoted his Country Diary in the Guardian to the hawthorn.  I think the piece merits being reproduced in its entirety:

The last May blooms like a bride on Windmill Hill. White in the evening light as the sky begins to clear from a cool, drizzly day, she stands as a lightning rod, still dazzling with energy from the recent storm. From lightning, according to myth, she originated. Her branches are filled with corymbs of five-petalled flowers, each with a ring of red, match-head stamens. Her earthily erotic musk draws flies for pollination and sends them into a trance. A sacred tree to European peoples, her wood was used in wedding torches in Greece, as protection against hauntings and evil spirits in Germany, and in magical healing for warts, toothache, rheumatoid arthritis and childbirth.

Crowns of mayflower were found on the dead of Palaeolithic cave-dwellers long before they were used as bridal wreaths in Greek and Roman weddings dedicated to Maia and the Virgin Mary. In Celtic culture, lone bushes like this one were places of fairy power and protected for fear of reprisals. There is something in this. I have long admired this particular tree: impenetrable and cloud-shaped, it flowers late and produces a big crop of scarlet haws. It is frequently full of birdsong and the hum of insects, and has a distinctive presence up on top of the hill as a kind of beacon. It would feel like sacrilege to interfere with it and I can well believe its beauty could turn to malevolence. Most May trees or hawthorns in the landscape have gone smudgy, their petals fading and dropping in the rain.

Paths and lanes all around are sprinkled with the white confetti of the great wedding of May, and now the month and its tree are nearly over. The next wave of rose relative flowers – bramble and dog rose – is about to break out of hedges and scrub. Until then, this tree says it all in dazzling simplicity: flowers and thorns, beauty and pain – the marriage of May.

The hawthorn, as Stafford rightly stated, has changed the entire face of Britain: it’s a palimpsest of old land practices. This hardy tree, when cut and laid, is in many ways responsible for our very idea of the British countryside because of its usefulness for hedging. When much of Britain was enclosed in the eighteenth century, the new fields were marked by hawthorn tree hedges, shaping the landscape into the familiar patchwork of fields. Fields bounded by hawthorn hedges form a deeply-ingrained mental image of the English landscape – which is why the uprooting of old hedgerows in modern farming practice can be such a psychological shock. More than that, the loss of hawthorn hedgerows has also had an impact on wildlife, contributing to the decline of many species of bird.  In his poem ‘The Thrush’s Nest’, John Clare observed the close affinity between hawthorn and thrush:

Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day –
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.

A typical Poplar Tree lined road - south of France photo by Brian Jones

A typical poplar-lined road in the south of France (photo by Brian Jones,

When, in the 1970s, we began travelling through France to campsites in the Dordogne or Cevennes, the element of the landscape that most impressed itself upon me was that of miles of poplars that lined the routes nationales as we drove south.  In her essay on the poplar, Fiona Stafford noted that many of those in northern France were planted all in one go, on the instruction of Napoleon, in order to shade troops as they marched towards the French border.  The fact that they rapidly grew tall in orderly rows meant that they were perfect for lining trunk roads, or for gentlemen – who, on the Grand Tour, had seen the ‘Lombardy Poplar’ lining roads and rivers in northern Italy and had decided to utilise them line avenues on their country estates.

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplar, said Stafford, is not much good as wood these days  (it’s mainly used for matches), but is, surprisingly, the most modern of trees, being the first tree to have had its complete DNA sequenced. This breakthrough has allowed experiments in tree breeding to begin – with objectives such as combating carbon emissions, and developing bio-fuels and bio-degradable plastics.

For such a plain, column like tree there are, surprisingly, many literary references to poplars.  Among those mentioned by Fiona Stafford was ‘Binsey Poplars’, written by Gerard Manley-Hopkins as an early protest against tree-felling – an act of ‘spiritual vandalism’ – when the poplars in the water meadows at Binsey were cut down.  It was a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford, and the felling ‘symbolized the careless destruction of nature by modernity’:

 felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Then there are the many artistic representations of poplars – ranging from Turner and Monet (the many paintings in all seasons of the poplars on the banks of the river Epte) and Van Gogh (who painted poplars many times in his life) to Paul Cezanne and Roger Fry.

Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

JMW Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

Monet Poplars on the River Epte,

Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars, 1887

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars,1887

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Vincent van Gogh Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a road through the hills, 1889

Earlier I mentioned Cezanne’s obsession with painting the pines that framed the view of Mont St Victoire he saw every day when he climbed the hill above his home outside Aix-en-Provence.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever painted the poplars cypress [see comment below!] which rise in the foreground of that view.  Maybe they weren’t there in the 1880s, though they were present when I photographed the scene a few years ago.

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Whatever their economic or utilitarian value, the thing about trees for me is their daily presence in the world around us – ‘constant as the northern star’ as Joni Mitchell wrote in an entirely different context.  Constant and yet ever-changing: they may be the most important means by which we measure the seasons.  There is, too, something almost inexpressible about how we live out our lives amongst living things which – if they can escape the chainsaw – can survive for centuries or even millennia. They are truly, in the words of a poem by WS Merwin which coincidentally appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, the way we see the world:

‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

See also

Turner and the Sea: pure paint and pure sensation

Turner and the Sea: pure paint and pure sensation

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

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks

Our main purpose in popping over to Manchester last week was to see the John Piper exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery.  Piper is an artist whose work I admire, but I have to admit that this exhibition – The Mountains of Wales – left me a little  underwhelmed.  Or maybe that should be overwhelmed? The Whitworth has brought together a large selection of paintings and drawings, all from a private collection, depicting mountains and rocks.  The trouble is that, taken together, the note sung by these works is a dark monotone: predominantly greys, browns and blacks with occasional splashes of colour.  As David Fraser Jenkins says in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Not one of the drawings looks as if it has been made on a sunny day.’ Continue reading “John Piper: the shape and tilt of rocks”

Chance encounters with Turner in Yorkshire

JMW Turner: The Strid, Bolton Abbey, 1809

Two days away in a wet and windswept Yorkshire, seeking out short and sheltered walks suitable for someone celebrating her 87th birthday, coincidentally and with no deliberate intent, wherever we went we happened to choose places, all of which, it turned out, had been painted by JW Turner.

Turner first visited Yorkshire aged 22,  and returned to the county throughout his life, inspired by the sublimity he perceived in its landscapes. There was another reason, too: a close friend and patron was Walter Fawkes, whose home at Farnley Hall in Wharfedale near Otley, Turner first visited in 1797.  His friendship with Fawkes and his attraction to the area around Otley meant that he returned to Farnley Hall throughout his career. He visited more than seventy places in Yorkshire, sketching and painting views from many angles – an engagement with the county’s landscape which echoes recent work by David Hockney.

Turner sought to capture the sublime, defined in 1756 by Edmund Burke as

when we witness something that instills fascination mixed with fear, or if we stand in the presence of something far larger than ourselves.

Turner’s Yorkshire paintings epitomise the picturesque, the aesthetic ideal introduced into English culture in 1782 by William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, essentially a travel guide for the leisured class on how to perceive ‘the face of a country by the rules of picturesque beauty’. The idea of the picturesque was a part of the emerging Romantic sensibility of the 18th century, and still exercises an uncanny influence when we’re framing a landscape for a photo.

Many of Turner’s Yorkshire paintings were in response to commissions following the success of Gilpin’s guide.  He would make pencil sketches direct from the landscape as the basis for finished watercolours and paintings (his sketchbooks can be viewed on Tate Britain’s website).

Our first stop was Aysgarth Force, where the River Ure drops over three major falls in less than one mile. The third fall, Lower Falls, is the most vigorous, where the river drops down a fine staircase of horizontal ledges and can be an awesome sight (and sound) when the river is in spate, which it was last week.

Turner visited Aysgarth on 28 July 1816 when making illustrations for A General History of the County of York by Thomas Dunham Whitaker. Turner was impressed by the Aysgarth waterfalls, a popular tourist spot then as now. He visited in the wet summer of 1816 to sketch and paint the falls from various viewpoints. The heavy rainfall meant that the river was high and the water would have been gushing over the limestone rocks.

JMW Turner: Aysgarth Force, 1816-17

Turner developed his sketches into a finished watercolour (above) which shows the area with fewer trees than today and depicts fishermen by the river’s edge. He introduces two figures into the foreground. One has stripped off his stockings and appears to be preparing for a paddle.

The following day we visited the Strid, where the river Wharfe narrows suddenly and the water races with great force.  We walked up to the viewpoint in the woods from where you can see the river rushing into the Strid far below.  In the distance is Barden Tower, a medieval hunting lodge that is now a ruin.

JMW Turner: Distant View of BardenTower on the River Wharfe

In 1808 Turner sketched this scene during a short tour on the rivers Wharfe and Washburn.  The result was his  watercolour, Distant View of Barden Tower on the River Wharfe (above).  On the same trip Turner completed The Strid, Bolton Abbey (top of post). The watercolour shows a figure fishing, a recurring theme that reflects Turner’s enthusiasm for the pastime, as well as being a popular motif of the picturesque.  On this trip, Turner made a number of sketches of Bolton Abbey and from these he later developed a finished watercolour (below), which he eventually used for his own series Picturesque Views of England and Wales in 1827.

We drove further down the valley to the Bolton Abbey estate where the Priory ruins are indeed highly picturesque, in a beautiful setting by the Wharfe.  The east end of the building nearest the river is a ruin, but at the west end the nave survived the dissolution and continued to be used as a parish church.  In the 19th century windows by August Pugin were added.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, on the Wharfe c.1798

Turner made several visits to the Bolton Abbey estate, and produced a series of watercolours of the ruins of the Priory and nearby sites, including The Strid and Barden Tower. His first visit – a brief one – was in 1797, when he just had the opportunity to make a quick sketch while his coach changed horses at nearby Bolton Bridge.  A watercolour, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, on the Wharfe, resulted the following year.

Turner returned in 1808 during the tour he made of the Rivers Wharfe and Washburn that year  from the home of his Yorkshire friend and patron, Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall near Otley.  On that occasion he made some large pencil sketches and painted two watercolours for Walter Fawkes, one of which (Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, below) is in the collection of the University of Liverpool Art Gallery.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, 1809

There is a second, more distant, view (below), framed by trees, looking down from a hillside on meadows through which the river meanders past the ruins.  This one is in the British Museum collection.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, 1809

Turner returned again in 1816 when making an extensive tour of Yorkshire in search of subjects to illustrate the planned General History of the County of York by Thomas Dunham Whitaker.  He made a number of sketches and from those later developed a finished picture (below), one of the finest of his series of watercolours of Bolton Abbey – now in the collection of National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside at the Lady Lever Art Gallery on the Wirral.  Whitaker died before his book was completed, so Turner later included an engraved illustration of this watercolour in his own Picturesque Views of England and Wales, published ten years later, in 1827.  There’s that fisherman again, tying his fly, his satchel and jacket lying on the river bank in the foreground.

JMW Turner: Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, c.1825

On another occasion, waiting for the rain to pass,  we drove out of our dale over the moors to Malham Tarn, where the sun made a determined effort to vanquish the rain, provoking a rainbow in the process. We stopped the car for a while and thought of a walk to the Tarn, but the land was a morass.

We drove down to Malham and walked out from the village up to the Cove.  There is something spookily awe-inspiring about  that sheer limestone cliff formed at the end of the last ice age when meltwater cut back into the cove as it fell over the edge as a waterfall.  There is no water now – instead, it finds its way through the joints and fissures of the limestone to rise south of the village as the source of the river Aire.

Turner completed this watercolour of the Cove in 1810.  He visited Malham twice – in 1808, and gain in 1816 during his extensive tour of Yorkshire.  Tate Britain’s sketchbook collection includes 18 sketches of Malham Cove and Tarn, as well as nearby Gordale Scar.  The British Museum holds this watercolour of Malham Cove, cattle grazing in foreground while  two figures approach, one mounted on an ass. Coincidentally,  Turner depicts the arc of a rainbow spanning the scene, as mist and rain appears to clear the cove.

We spent a few days in the Dales at the same time last year, and on that occasion strolled up the valley from the Green Dragon Inn at Hardraw in Wensleydale to the head of the gorge where the Hardraw Force cascades 100 feet from an overhanging ledge.  This may be the only walk which absolutely requires that you begin in the bar of a pub (where you pay an admission fee).  Perhaps Turner sat with a pint of ale here before settling himself down on the grass in front of the waterfall with his sketchbook?

Turner visited Hardraw Force on 27 July 1816, as part of his grand tour, and spent the night in the village at the Green Dragon Inn.  Hardraw Force was already a well-known attraction in Turner’s time, with fellow contemporaries such as Wordsworth also visiting.

Turner made two large sketches of the falls before making his final finished watercolour Hardraw Fall (below, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).

JMW Turner: ‘Hardraw Fall’, 1816

Turner’s watercolour, like those of Malham and Bolton Abbey, shows how Turner manipulated the scene, exaggerating scale and height, to imbue it with Burke’s sense of the sublime: that which ‘instills fascination mixed with fear’, as if we stand ‘in the presence of something far larger than ourselves’.

The final coincidence in these chance encounters with Turner is that we were staying in a caravan belonging to friends, located on a caravan park at Hawkswick, a mile or so further up Littondale from Kilnsey, famous for the distinctive form of Kilnsey Crag , a towering inland limestone cliff, around 150 feet high, which has an impressive overhang of about 40 feet.  The dramatic cliff drew Turner here, too: on his tour of Yorkshire in 1816 he spent the night of 25 July at nearby Kettlewell and devoted the following morning to sketching Kilnsey Crag.

JMW Turner: Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale, 1816

Turner made a series of quick sketches recording views from the road to the north and south in a small pocketbook, before deciding that the best profile was that from the south and recording that in his largest sketchbook.  Turner always liked to give a wider sense of the situation of his subjects, so his final idea was to take the view from a distance at the village of Conistone, where he could take in the headland of Kilnsey jutting into the Wharfe Valley, with the river and Conistone Bridge in the foreground and the higher fells of Upper Wharfedale in the background.  He made a detailed sketch across two pages of his largest sketchbook and developed that into a highly atmospheric watercolour study, Kilnsey Crag and Conistone, Upper Wharfedale (above).

See also

  • The Turner Trails: trail guide links 70 sites in Yorkshire associated with JMW Turner