Turner’s Best Period (1802-1815) – English Water Colour Painters

The Edinburgh from Calton Hill—Connexion between Turner’s water colours and his pictures in oil—The influences which moulded the work of this period—Rubens’s Rainbow landscape and Chateau, de Steen—The impression this latter picture made on Wordsworth—Turner’s Scarborough Castle—Vandalism has damaged the Grouse Shooting and ruined its companion piece—Ivy Bridge—The scarcity of the work of Turner’s best period in the public collections.

THE depth and richness of tone of the Warkworth Castle was repeated on a larger scale and with more conscious mastery in the Edinburgh from Calton Hill, exhibited in 1804, and now in the National Gallery. This drawing may have helped to convince Turner that such effects are more suitably treated in oils. At any rate, after this time he exhibited few important water-colours at the Academy, the Citruses and Scarborough of 1811, and the Battle of Fort Rock of 1815, being the chief exceptions.

Besides, the long list of oil paintings produced between 1802 and 1807 can have left little time on his hands for work in water colour. When it was resorted to it was generally for the rapid notation of atmospheric effects—as in the two Loch Long drawings—or for the making of small coloured projects for future oil paintings.

In the Edinburgh and in the Holy Family exhibited in 1803, and in Sir Cuthbert Quilter’s Venus and Adonis, which was certainly begun at the same time, one traces the influence of the Titians which Turner had seen and copied in the Louvre. In the predominant blackness of the Calais Pier and Boats Carrying out Anchors and Cables to Dutch Men-of-War, one notices something of the influence of Wilson, but perhaps more of Claude Vernet. But in the more coloured style of the Sun rising through Vapour (exhibited in 1807), which was further developed in the Greenwich, Abingdon, and Windsor of the following years, the influence of some of the Dutch painters becomes more evident. Perhaps the example of Rubens counted for most in the work of this period. Two of his noble landscapes were brought to England in 1802, when they attracted considerable attention, and they are sure not to have escaped Turner’s notice. One of these canvases, the Château de Steen (now in the National Gallery), passed into the possession of Sir George Beaumont, while the other, the Rainbow landscape of the Wallace Collection, was bought by the Earl of Orford. These two superb landscapes with their fresh pure colour, consummate design, and thoroughly healthy and unaffected spirit, must have done something to alienate Turner’s mind from the theories of the debased Roman tradition, and to induce him to rely with greater confidence upon his own personal impressions of Nature.

An interesting record of the kind of influence exercised at the time by one of these pictures is quoted by Mr Edward T. Cook in his valuable ” Handbook to the National Gallery.” ” I heard the other day,” wrote Wordsworth to Sir George Beaumont, ” of two artists who thus expressed themselves upon the subject of a scene among the lakes :

` Plague upon those vile enclosures ! ‘ said one, `they spoil everything.’ ‘ Oh,’ said the other, ` I never see them.’ Glover was the name of this last. Now,” adds Wordsworth, ” for my part I should not wish to be either of these gentlemen, but to have in my own mind the power of turning to advantage, wherever it is possible, every object of Art and Nature as they appear before me. What a noble instance, as you have pointed out to me, has Rubens given of this in that picture in your possession, where he has brought, as it were, a whole county into one landscape, and made the most formal partitions of cultivation, hedgerows of pollard willows conduct the eye into the depths and distances of his picture : and thus, more than by any other means, has given it that appearance of immensity which is so striking” (” Memorials of Coleorton,” ii. p. 135.

It is this growing sense that the artist can find beauty, not by merely failing to see the characteristic features of reality, nor by tricking out and elevating Nature by the employment of artfully contrived methods of execution, that one traces in the works which Turner produced between 1805 and 1815. In the Greenwich, Abingdon, Windsor, and Frosty Morning, one feels that the artist has worked with his eye fixed steadily upon his object. Such works are the very “Emanations of reality and truth “; the scenes themselves have created these pictures—the reality acting upon the sympathetic and comprehending soul of the artist. The absolute truth of such works can be tested only in one way. As they spring from the immediate certainty of intuitive knowledge, so the conviction they carry to those who are not blinded by the prejudices of theory or experience is the only worthy witness they can appeal to.

These paintings were produced during the artist’s thirtieth and fortieth years. As a typical example of his work in water colour during these years of perfect equilibrium, the Scarborough Castle of the Wallace Collection may be instanced.

The Scarborough Castle: Boys Crab-Fishing (654) was painted in 1809. It is a summer’s afternoon, and the castle is seen across the bay from a spot near where the Spa stands at present. In the middle distance the bay is filled with the rhythmic circles of the receding tide, which leaves the rows of fishing-boats stranded alongside the breakwater ; beyond, the fishers’ cottages are huddled together at the foot of the hill. In the foreground there are fishermen, and two boys hunt for crabs in the pools left by the tide. The colour of the whole is pure and unaffected, and the subtle sympathy which seems to have entered into the very individuality of each one of the multifarious objects of the scene—the feeling of relief with which the boats settle down to rest on the sand, the ordered rippling retreat of the translucent waters, the feeling of comradeship which has sprung up between the cliffs and the ruined tyrant couched over them and the humble cottages which have sought their shelter all this insight has transfigured a little scene of ordinary everyday life into a poem of the highest beauty and significance.

The drawing entitled Grouse Shooting (664) in the same gallery, belongs to the same period, having been painted probably about 1811. A group of ponies and horsemen are ranged in shadow on the moorside in the middle distance, while the foreground is occupied by a figure, said to be the artist himself, followed by a keeper and dogs : beyond, over the hills, the sun is breaking its way through the mists. It is difficult to account for the deep and lasting impression this drawing makes on one. In any other hands the triviality of the occupation of the figures would have stilled all thoughts of “flowers weeping in their woodland beds,” and of the lights and shades

“That marched and countermarched about the hills In glorious apparition.”

Here it is not so. Perhaps the very irrationality of the conception adds to the impressiveness of the picture. One feels that the artist did not ” make it all up ” , he must have seen it and felt in its presence those unanalysable and indescribable emotions which his drawing communicates.

Unfortunately the drawing has suffered much since it left the artist’s hands. Fools and blunderers have tampered with the artist’s creation, destroying the unity and completeness of the drawing, though they have not obliterated all traces of the beauty of Turner’s conception. A dog painter has been called in to bring Turner’s figures up to the pitch of ” finish ” demanded by the stupidest amateurs. The wooden white dog with black spots by Stubbs, R.A. has thrown the whole drawing out of focus. Turner’s figures are often carelessly (perhaps wilfully would be a better word) drawn, but at least they keep their places and assist rather than disturb the general effect ; but the dog fancier’s hieroglyph is not only dull and stupid in itself, but it is actively inimical to the rest of the drawing.

It is difficult not to think that the same maladroit hand has done its best to wreck the fore-ground of this drawing and that of its companion work, Woodcock Shooting ; with the Portrait of Sir H. Pilkington ” (651). Some beautiful work still remains in the wooded mountain-side and distance, but the unfortunate fir tree and the clumsy scratches in the foreground turn the whole thing into a mere sporting picture.

The exquisite Ivy Bridge in the National Gallery may also be included in this period, as the pencil sketch was made in 1812, and the finished drawing was in the hands of the engravers by 1816. This is justly regarded as one of Turner’s most beautiful creations.

Some others of the Southern Coast drawings may also have been completed before 1815, and the whole of the published ” Liber Studiorum ” designs were probably finished some years before.

But on the whole the water colour work of Turner’s best years is very badly represented in the public collections. The British Museum contains none. South Kensington contains only one unfinished sketch—the delightful View of Richmond—while the number of such drawings exhibited at the National Gallery is heartbreakingly small.