I should like you to know something of Turner’s life before we look at his pictures which are in a room to themselves. He was born in 1775 in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, the son of a barber. If his father had any plan about his future at all it was only to make the boy a hairdresser like himself. Turner as a child would wander in and out among the porters and salesmen in Covent Garden ; he would stroll about the streets and see life as he pleased ; he would wander by the river side and watch the boats and make friends with the sailors. It was a low side of life enough that he saw, but from those early years he learnt a sympathy with the poor which never deserted him. His father seems to have been a mean and unimaginative man. Turner once said that the only time his father ever praised him was when he saved a halfpenny. The future artist had hardly any education, but he loved to draw. His earliest pictures were of noblemen’s castles and have as little fire and imagination in them as the local guide book. They were often sold at his father’s shop for a few shillings. When you come to look at Turner’s pictures you will see one of them, Caernarvon Castle (1867), which was painted when he was about fifteen. It is interesting to look at this early work, so accurate yet so ugly, for later on he eared not at all for accuracy and all for beauty. The time came when he lived in visions and he dreamt in colour. It is difficult to make you understand in a few words why Turner was such a supremely great landscape painter. He saw all the brilliancy in nature, he studied the sun as it rose in glory and sank in splendour, and when the twilight had deepened he still remained with his eyes fixed heavenwards watching the waning light of the moon.
Turner exhibited ten drawings at the Royal Academy when he was twelve : at fourteen he entered the Academy schools. At so early an age his strong individuality had not begun to show itself, but his genius was recognised. Ten years later he was made an A.R.A. All this time he was painting in the manner of Cuyp and Van de Velde, Dutch masters whom you will have seen at Hertford House. But later on he travelled in Italy, and this taught him as Ruskin tells us ` that all previous landscape art was vain and valueless, that in comparison with natural colour, the things that had been called paintings were mere ink and charcoal, that all precedent and all authority must be cast away at once and trodden under foot. He saw that there were more clouds in any sky than had ever been painted, more trees in every forest, he reproduced so far as he could the simple impressions that he had received from nature, associating them with his own deepest feelings.’
A lady once said to him, ` Mr. Turner, I don’t see the colours that you paint in the sunset.’
` I dare say not, Madam,’ was the reply, ` but don’t you wish that you could ‘ ?
If you want to see the colours that he saw in the sunset, look at the picture with the curious title, ` War the Exile and the Rock Limpet’ (529). In this canvas the setting sun in its gory brilliancy is an emblem of Napoleon who stands there. His sun has set in a sea of blood. And the rock limpet, at which the fallen hero is gazing, is a symbol of his condition, imprisoned on the lonely rock of St. Helena.
If you want to realize that he saw visions of colour that some of us never see, you should look at ` The Thames from above Waterloo Bridge’ (1992). The mist of the river is over the scene, the vessels are scarcely visible in the fading light, but the faint red and yellow of the craft remind us rather of Venetian gondolas than of the boats on our great river.
Let us look at a picture of ` Sunrise ‘ (1990) and note the exquisite delicacy of the sky reflected on the misty waters. In the sea floats an extra-ordinary monster, which gives to the picture a nightmare-like unreality.
I don’t want you to ask too many questions about the ‘ Interior at Petworth ‘ (1988) , for I can’t make it out myself ; it is a riot of colour. It seems to me as if it should rather be called ` Earthquake at Petworth,’ and that, all barriers being broken down, the farmyard has wandered into the great hall. I can just discern two dogs pulling something to pieces, and I am told that the central table has been upset, and that is why there is such a medley on the floor.
Turner is not an ideal figure of man even if we do not quite believe all that was said against him. It was said that he was mean, but there are two stories of him which show a generous side to his nature. One year when the pictures were being hung at the Royal Academy, no place could be found for a very fine picture by an outsider. It had been accepted but it would have to be sent back. Turner knew what a disappointment this would be to a rising artist, but there seemed nothing else to be done. At last he walked over to one of his brilliant canvases hung on the line, took it down, and had the other picture hung in its stead.
Another time, the pictures had been hung, the Academicians were walking round seeing their productions as they looked on the walls. Sir Thomas Lawrence came to his it was hung next to a splendid Turner of ‘ Cologne.’ Poor Lawrence, as he looked at his canvas which had seemed so brilliant in the studio, saw its colour had gone. Turner noticed this too, and saw his brother artist’s distress. He took up his brush and washed over Cologne’s gorgeous sky with lampblack, saying, ‘ it will wash off, and Lawrence was so unhappy.’
We will have a final look round before leaving the room, stopping for a moment before the ‘ Evening Star ‘ (1991), a picture of delicate beauty. In the dim twilight sky a tiny speck of light is seen.
‘ A star, in the silence that follows The song of the death of the sun, Speaks music in heaven, and the hollows And heights of the world are as one.’
You are standing by the seashore listening to the melancholy sound of the waves evermore dashing on the beach ; the masts of a sunken ship are just visible above the water and give an added touch of mystery to the scene.
Turner loved the sea and shipping, and could draw every detail of a ship from memory. You will have noticed as you went round the room, the beautiful sky and the brown sails of the boats in ` Hastings ‘ (1986) ; the effect of wind and wave in `Yacht Racing in the Solent,’ (1993, 1994, 1995) but we must now pass on to another room, and as we do so we shall feel as if the sun had suddenly gone down.