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Turner's Britain

James Hamilton

208 pages, 110 illustrations, 95 in color
Merrell Publishers (November 2003)
ISBN 1-85894-211-X
Hardcover, $59.95

What is evident from these and other friendships and enmities, and from his work and pattern of travel as a whole, is that Turner's Britain is not any handful of local areas but the whole extent of the island itself, taking in England, Wales, and, as far as was possible for him, Scotland. Through his need and desire to travel so widely, and, as shall be discussed later, to know the history, to observe the life, and to understand the climate and geography of Britain, Turner was the first British artist to express the integrity of the nation.

-- from Turner's Britain

Young, successful, innovative, J.M.W. Turner was moved both personally and by commercial contracts to be observer and recorder of Britain's places. He was a ceaseless traveller, making eight journeys between 1794 and 1831 -- keenly observant, and gathering enough material in his sketchbooks to fulfill artistic commissions for a lifetime. This sound, straightforward offering, James Hamilton's fourth book on the Romantic English artist, focuses on Turner's illustrations of British landscape as a single body of work, tracing his lifelong romance with the British countryside. From wild, lonely Scottish dales to the inferno of a burning Parliament, Turner's Britain is a glimpse into the social, political, and aesthetic ambitions of this superbly talented artist -- and into his expression, through his art, of a portrait of Britain's identity as a nation.

Turner's Britain underscores Turner's copiousness, his achievements as an artist, particularly as a British artist illustrating Britain. As a body of work, his engraved subjects alone cover nearly the entire nation: "no place in England and Wales is more than about forty miles from the subject of an engraved landscape; and in Scotland, south of the Great Glen, this rises to only about sixty miles." They are images of a nation at peace, in industry, and in some works, the tensions of war, captured in the details of Britain's moods, her wild places, her settlements and industry. Though a precise recorder of place, Turner's representations were not merely documentary. He combined, when he chose, both the Picturesque and the Sublime, infusing the traditional majestic, pastoral contemplativeness with a wild, Romantic feel for tensions and remote places. His inheritance in this type of illustration was a landscape tradition with set formal considerations, even to the degree of permissable "front-screens" and "side-screens." Like all innovators, Turner immediately, and successfully, changed the rules, presenting views, vantage points, and compositions never before seen:

The second Salisbury subject, South view from the Cloisters, Salisbury Cathedral, brings the cathedral suddenly into close-up and frames it, extraordinarily, behind a broken ogee arch. This frame-within-a-frame has the effect of focusing attention on to the building, and dramatically curtails the composition. Turner had taken bold viewpoints before -- under bridges, through the ruins of abbeys -- but here he also invokes the complex interiors of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose influential engravings of prisons and Roman remains Turner saw in Colt Hoare's collection. South view from the Cloisters takes the viewer directly into Salisbury Cathedral's enclosed spaces, and evokes the visitor's experience of seeing the different parts of the building appearing to shift in relation to one another as he or she moves around it.

Turner's earliest British images capture the antiquarian sensibility of the time, the romance of ruined buildings, a perception new to the 18th century. Other works display the countryside with a reflective touch drawn from Dutch landscape tradition, long, low views, bucolic and peaceful, with rich, reflective illumination. He wielded an uncanny touch for light -- Hamilton notes the superb subtlety of the interior sunshine in Inside View of the Hall of Christ Church (1803-04) -- as well as a fascination for detail, natural, architecural, and human. The human presence in particular was a lively innovation to Turner's landscape works. His buildings and natural features, impeccably drawn, are evocative in themselves; but it is the "scale and incident" added by the often very tiny humans at work or play that add an enduring appeal. The 110 illustrations in Turner's Britain show off the artist's wealth of work with full prominence as full- and half-page plates. These include oils, watercolors, drawings and engravings, each reflecting a different aspect of British life and scenery: Oxford and other ancient yet vital British institutions, the manor houses of the aristocracy, the rigorous realities of travel by stagecoach and on horseback, the far-reaching magnificence of Britain's own native landscape, both seaside and interior.

This last, like his rewriting of compositional rules, was a statement in itself. Turner's appointment, for which he ceaselessly lobbied, to the position of Royal Academician in 1802 gave him clout and commissions, and a further arena in which to exercise his genius. His achievement, ultimately, was to not only recorded Britain's byways with accuracy and feeling, but to elevate Britain itself to a worthy subject for Classical illustration -- a consideration formerly only given to Roman ruins or the Continent. The year after his Academy appointment he exhibited The Festival upon the opening of the Vintage of Macon (1803), a formal landscape in the manner of Claude which presented, in the guise of an acceptably Continental panorama, a wholly and instantly recognizable British scene -- the view of the Thames from Richmond Hill. In 1808, infuriated by the destruction of the historic home of British essayist and critic Alexander Pope, Turner evoked the loss to Britain as a nation by depicting the villa's ruins in a fully Classical style. Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington (1818) presented a deep, superbly accomplished vista of rolling landscape -- "perhaps the greatest Rubens that Rubens never painted; and with this picture we witness Turner proclaiming once again not only that he himself is the equal of the Old Masters, but that the landscape of Britain can stand comparison with any country across the sea."

A curious absence in Turner's British portrayals is of specifically industrial subjects. In the years between 1775 and 1830 Britain's centuries-old cottage economy gave way to the burgeoning forces of the Industrial Revolution, its technology provoking radical change. Barrie Trinder's introduction to Turner's Britain gives a useful overview of the transformations that took place within Turner's lifetime, including the industrial-era concepts of landscape as illustrative of natural riches to be exploited, the mushrooming growth of villages and towns, and travel's evolution from coaching to steam railway. Turner was neither unaware nor immune to such change, and in 1830 was forced to make another trip, his first journey in fourteen years, to England's thriving Midlands to update the detailed sketchbooks on which he relied daily. Landscapes that had remained the same for centuries -- the landscapes he had illustrated as a young man -- were being altered, irrevocably and swiftly:

His painting of Dudley and the sketches made on his visit to the town reflect the changes in the Black Country during his lifetime. In 1775 there were large areas of heathlands, on which cottages housing nailers and other metalworkers were scattered in clusters such as that conserved at Mushroom Green. Enclosure acts made possible the expansion of collieries with steam pumping and winding engines, and the construction on private land of blast furnaces and forges with scores of puddling furnaces and steam-driven mills, while the area was intersected with the narrow canals. Fire and smoke dominated the landscape by 1830.

J.M.W. Turner
South view from the Cloisters,
Salisbury Cathedral
, c. 1802
26-3/4 x 19-1/2 in.

Despite this, the industrial "fire and smoke" appears only rarely in Turner's works, which even in later years focused on seaside scenes, stately homes, and landscape vistas over the technological marvels of his age.

Industrial technology was rewriting the social and political landscape as well as the material one. Though the son of a tradesman, Turner was privileged to move easily in the world of aristocracy, rendered by virtue of his talent and position as Academician welcome in the homes of some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the land. His long-time patrons had been the landed lords, and in illustrating their homes he illustrated as well the seemingly unshakeable position of the British aristocracy. Petworth, Sussex, the Seat of the Earl of Egremont: Dewy Morning (1810) exhibits both wealth and an unruffled, imperturbable privilege in its portrayal of fishing boats against a distant view of the extensive manor house. The new economy heaped wealth on industralists and tradesmen, and the position of the artistocracy was threatened by the rise of a prosperous middle class. Within his lifetime Turner was to both observe and experience this change, his 'old guard' of artistocratic patrons dying out, forcing him to cultivate new patrons among the wealthy middle classes. Blenhiem House and Park, Oxfordshire (1830-31) is a possible allusion to the coming social shift. The scenery is bucolic, but Hamilton notes the subtle tension in the timid yet present townsfolk taking the stage from the right, and the group of aristocratic huntsmen, alert and armed, arriving from the left.

With significant groundwork done in his previous books on Turner, Hamilton in Turner's Britain keeps biographical information to a minimum, providing enough to give a sense of the artist's enterprising zeal, his dedication to art over family life, the business details of his collaborations with various printmakers (a driving force behind his never-ceasing production of engraved views) and a hint of his ambitions and quarrels with the Royal Academy. Of Turner's personal life, the most detail is given to his friendship of nearly twenty years with Yorkshire landowner Walter Fawkes. Aside from artistic support, as well as providing one of the few places in which Turner seems to have enjoyed a recreative break from his relentless commercial production, Fawkes, a dedicated, radical politician, is credited with influencing Turner toward a sympathy for Parliamentary reform. The chapter "The Morning Star of Liberty" discusses the more overt political content of Turner's works of the 1820s and 1830s, where his allusions to rotten boroughs and political malfeasance are the strongest, culminating in his oil painting The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835). Turner's Britain also includes eighteen previously unpublished illustrations done in collaboration with Fawkes, Historical Vignettes and Fairfaxiana. These informal watercolors illustrate objects of British historical significance that were personal possessions of the Fawkes family. While these non-landscape subjects do not highlight Turner's political expressions per se -- not as powerfully as the fury of a burning Parliament -- they are a glimpse into a lighter, informal application of his skills, as well as his wry wit.

The Fighting 'Temeraire', tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838, painted when Turner was sixty-three, expressed a poignant evocation of the end of an age. Grimy, dirty, unlovely, chugging along with its plume of coal-fueled smoke, the industrial-era tugboat tows the ghostly grace of the retired tall ship Temeraire, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, to its final destination: the shipyard where it will be broken up. Beauty and significance meld in this work, in which Turner himself may also have felt a sense of superannuation, a nostalgia for the passing of his own time. Beyond that point his final British works enter into an evocation of light and atmosphere, a prophecy of Impressionism long before the Impressionists were to come on the scene. Though their titles identify these large, diffuse oils as British subjects, Turner, now nearly seventy, had detached himself from his lifelong depiction of precise place. In Morning after the Wreck (1840s), "a ghostly ship passes in full sail, haunting the foreshore as people pick over tangled wreckage," but "we are nowhere in particular, just the end of an era." And in Rough Sea (1840s), we are, finally, nowhere at all: merely facing the primal wrath of the ocean, a roaring roil of grey wave flecked with white froth.

Turner's Britain is an orderly examination of Turner's lifetime involvement with his native land -- as landscape, as home of raw resources and growing industry, as social entity -- and of the evolution of his own vision, artistic and aesthetic. Taken as a body, Turner's British works record the buildings and places of Britain of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As Hamilton's detailed discussions note, these works are more than documentary, filled with innovation, allusion, and a subtle expression of the faces of British nationhood. With text well-balanced between the forces driving the artist, and the delights and significances of the art itself, Turner's Britain is an excellent addition to the canon of this influential and much-written-about artist.

Turner's Britain has been issued in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery in Birmingham, England, and showing from November 7, 2003 - February 8, 2004.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.

Turner's Britain, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.

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