I may not know much about art but I know what I like and I like the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner — all the more so now that I have seen the Turner and the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. The artist painted a variety of landscapes over the course of a long life but is probably best known for his seascapes (though I can’t be entirely sure since I don’t know much about art). In any case those are the works that most appeal to me, an aficionado of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. O’Brian’s writing brings the sea vividly to life in the imagination but the Turner exhibition is a chance to revel in it splashed over canvas.
‘Splashed’ is the wrong word. Turner’s application of paint was of course supremely artful and the real delight of the works on show in Greenwich is to be able to see how his artistic vision developed.
Born in 1775, Turner’s talent became evident in his teenage years; he exhibited his first oil painting at the Royal Academy in London in 1796. Fishermen at Sea displays considerable skill at rendering the play of light on water though I didn’t care for this early picture so very much — the colour and composition seemed too forced.
I preferred the darker mood of The Shipwreck painted nearly 10 years later. Strangely, however, if you look closely, the evident drama of the scene is somewhat undermined by the way the people holding on for dear life depicted — the figures have the simplicity of a child’s story book. Perhaps it’s unfair to look too closely but in some ways the engravings from his Liber Studorium seem to use his skill to better effect — they have an almost photographic immediacy.
The Shipwreck (1805) — from the Tate Collection (click link for a larger view)
That said, the exhibition is dominated by the paintings — and rightly so. Turner’s The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 is particularly dominant; at 3.6 m x 2.6 m it is by far the largest painting in the show. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, commands the scene but is surrounded by and succumbing to the bloody and smoky chaos of battle.
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (painted 1824) — National Maritime Museum
It’s a complex composition; there is action in every corner and the painting repays prolonged viewing though, truth be told, I found Stanfield’s HMS ‘Victory’ Towed into Gibraltar more moving and Pocock’s earlier and simpler painting, Battle of the First of June more dramatic and arresting.
Battle of the First of June (1794) — National Maritime Museum
Ultimately it was Turner’s later works that impressed the most, as he strived less to render the precise form of the sea and more to capture the sense or feeling of it. One of my favourite paintings in the exhibition is Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael, which was first shown in 1844. There is a melding of land, sea, sky and boats that is a bold attempt to convey the whole experience of being at sea.
Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael (1844) — Tate Collection
The blurring of boundaries foreshadows the emergence of impressionism and is seen also in a work from the same period, Waves breaking against the wind. As the caption put it, the picture was an attempt to portray the endless repletion but infinite forms of the waves beating against the shore. It is a painting of mesmerising, almost puzzling beauty. It baffles me that the image breaks down completely as you move in to examine the application of paint. And what is it about that wash of yellow at the upper right that is so appealing? I’ve never seen a sky that colour and yet it still has me convinced.
Waves breaking against the wind (1840) — Tate Collection
And finally (in this mini-tour), there is Snow Storm Steam Boat off a Harbour, which is even more impressionistic. There is a clear artifice in the way that Turner’s bolder strokes bind the sea and sky together as the elements swirl around the struggling steamboat; and yet, again, it works.
Snow storm steam boat off a harbour (1842) — Tate Collection
But please don’t take my word for it, or rely too heavily on the miniature renditions included in this post for an impression of Turner’s art. Go and see the exhibition for yourself. You have until April 21st.