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J.M.W. Turner

Current exhibitions and publications on Turner: No stone left unturned

As the exhibition on Ruskin’s championship of Turner opens at the Tate, this crop of catalogues returns a timely harvest of Turner scholarship

No stone left unturned

Such was Turner’s indefatigable industry that catalogues charting even a small facet of his oeuvre achieve a monumentality some catalogues raisonnés of more indolent artists only aspire to.

Cecilia Powell’s Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition catalogue has a wide brief, drawing together over seventy works by more than twenty artists, some not all well-known (John Scarlett Davis?), in an extended catalogue essay with biographical notes.

Unsurprisingly, occasionally one wishes for more length on some topics. Yet it is a valuable introduction to, and survey of the Romantic painters’ responses to “the garden of the world”, in Byron’s rhapsodic phrase from Childe Harold’s pilgrimage (1818). It explores the differences in status of Ruskin, Samuel Palmer, Edward Lear and Turner himself from the previous century’s aristocratic Grand Tourist’s tame drawing-masters mainly employed to record picturesque views.

Some artistic visitors seemed unlucky: Hannah Palmer got stuck with copyist drudgery, having been ordered to replicate Renaissance masterpieces for her painter father, John Linnell. There was sunstroke for the unwary; it laid William Collins low for six months. Miasmas and fevers around the Roman Coliseum were a constant fear (even at the end of the century as Henry James’s Daisy Miller attests), although that did not prevent Turner producing an evocative scene of the ruins by moonlight in 1819.

More comic were the religious vexations for Protestants let loose in Romish regions, especially before the Catholic Emancipation took place (1829) in Britain. Responses ranged from shocked to ribald, but had to be kept under wraps for fear of Papal censorship. Some were startled by the piety of the southern Italian brigands, prototype “medallion men”, who wore their Sacred Hearts on their chests, if not their sleeves, while robbing and worse....All these culture clashes come vividly to life and are well illustrated.

The Tate Gallery and British Museum’s chunky books vie in meticulous scholarship, but whereas the former’s Turner on the Loire comprises an omnium gatherum of drawings and watercolours in which Turner’s working methods can be teased out (the pencil notes on site are marvellous) and he alone is the focus, Kim Sloan is as much interested in T.W. Lloyd (1868-1958), the collector.

With good reason. This self-made businessman counted both mountains and beetles, as well as Turner watercolours, among his trophies, along with high quality Japanese swords. His fifty Turner watercolours from all periods of the artist’s career (1792-1843) held pride of place. Provenance is splendidly detailed and each work’s known history is fully annotated in ample notes while, due to Lloyd’s scrupulous framing and hanging, the illustrations appear astonishingly fresh.

Mr Rodner’s volume, subtitled “Romantic painter of the Industrial Revolution”, parallels Andrew Wilton’s Turner and the sublime or John Gage’s A wonderful range of mind in setting Turner within the socio-historical context for his work.

This is lucidly, sometimes brilliantly, achieved by taking various machines such as steam-tugs, sea-going steamships, coastal keelers, then factories, both in the Midlands and his native London and finally, steam-trains to provide Turner’s record of the “Age of steam.” It is not absolutely complete however, as his paintings of whaling-vessels seem to have got away.

With full and fascinating references to contemporary critics, poets and apologists for the new industrial developments from eighteenth-century canals to Paxton’s Great Exhibition building—which enthralled Turner in the last year of his life—as well as to artists like De Loutherbourg and J.S. Cotman, the conservative avidity of Turner’s industrial interest emerges clearly as one of the transformative elements of the age.

Cecilia Powell, Italy in the age of Turner: “The garden of the world” (Merrell Holberton, London, 1998), 120 pp, 50 b/w ills, 75 col. ills, £25, $40 (hb) ISBN 1858940494

Ian Warrell, Turner on the Loire (Tate Gallery Publishing, London 1998), 256 pp, 120 b/w ills, 96 col. ills, £25 (pb) ISBN 1854372181

Kim Sloan, J.M.W. Turner: watercolours from the R.W. Lloyd bequest to the British Museum (British Museum Press, London, 1998), 154 pp, 10 b/w ills, 50 col. ills, £20 (pb) ISBN 0714126136

William S. Rodner, J.M.W. Turner: Romantic painter of the Industrial Revolution (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998), 336 pp, 61 b/w ills, 8 col. ills, £35, $45 (hb) ISBN 0520204794

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'No stone left unturned'