Turner’s Early Work (1775-1802) – English Water Colour Painters

Contrast between Turner’s personality and Girtin’s–Turner’s affection and admiration for Girtin—Turner’s early architectural work and wanderings—Tinteïe Abbey (1794)—Lincoln Cathedral (1795)—Interior of a Cottage (1796)— Norham Castle (1798)—Bridge over the Usk, and Warkworth Castle (1799(—Unexhibited Alpine drawings (1802)—The characteristics of Turner’s early work—His study of tone rather than of form or colour —His scheme of colour as arbitrary as that of his later work, but more convincing.

To turn from the group of Girtin’s drawings at South Kensington to the works which Turner produced during Girtin’s life, makes one instantly aware of the striking contrast between the individuality of the two artists. In contrast with the boldness and simplicity of Girtin’s View on the Wharf and Kirkstall Abbey, Turner’s Warkworth Castle and Bridge over the Usk look timid and over subtle. Where Girtin sets up one motive and ruthlessly suppresses everything liable to distract attention from it, Turner, on the other hand, seems to come near frittering away his effect in a multitude of complications. Turner seems almost to lack manliness beside Girtin, to be cold, subtle, calculating, while Girtin bubbles over with robustious energy. It is the difference between a brilliant leader of cavalry and an organizer of victories on a large scale the difference, say, between a Murat and a Napoleon.

The two had been born in the same year, had been thrown early into contact with one another, were both united by an enthusiastic love of their art. Turner seems to have loved Girtin with his frank and hearty ways. Certainly no one was better constituted to appreciate the fine qualities of Girtin’s art than Turner, and it was not only in after years —if we may believe the gossips—that Turner spoke of his friend’s work with the warmest admiration. Aftex examining a drawing of St Paul’s which Girtin had just finished, he is said to have turned to him and exclaimed : ” Girtin, no man living could do this but you.” And in later years, whilst looking at another of Girtin’s drawings, he said : ” I never in my whole life could make a drawing like that: I would at any time have given one of my little fingers to make such a one.” A shy, sensitive man like Turner would naturally feel the attraction of Girtin’s impulsive brilliance.

But it would be a mistake to assume on such evidence that Girtin was the more accomplished or the more successful of the two, or that he exercised any appreciable influence on Turner’s art. Girtin is more likely to have learned from Turner than Turner from Girtin. Turner seems to have distinguished himself in the little art world which centred round the exhibitions of the Royal Academy some years before Girtin made his mark there. Girtin did not exhibit at the Academy till 1794, and then he only had one work exhibited, while Turner had been exhibiting there since 1790, and in 1794 he had five works against Girtin’s one. In themselves of course these figures prove nothing, but we have evidence that these drawings of Turner produced considerable effect, while, so far as we know, Girtin’s solitary contribution passed almost unnoticed. In a review published at the time, Turner’s works were said to be “amongst the best in the present exhibitions. They are the productions,” the writer says, “of a very young artist, and give strong indications of first-rate ability ; the character of Gothic architecture is most happily preserved, and its profusion of minute parts massed with judgment and tinctured with truth and fidelity. This young artist should beware of contemporary imitations. His present effort evinces an eye for Nature, which should scorn to look to any other source.” 1 One of the drawings referred to, The Interior of Tintern Abbey, is now at South Kensington, and it is evident that the writer has not over-rated it. Girtin never succeeded in treating a Gothic building with such power and felicity. So that if Turner could not make drawings like Girtin, we must bear in mind that Girtin could neither make drawings like Turner.

In 1795, Turner exhibited eight ‘works, and in 1796 no less than eleven. The Lincoln Cathedral, to which we have already referred, was one of the 1795 exhibits. One of the next year’s exhibits can probably be identified with an extremely delicate and beautifully wrought interior of a cottage in the National Gallery. This drawing, which Mr Ruskin did not include among the exhibited drawings, has induced Thornbury to suppose that ” the hard-featured woman crooning over the smoke” is Turner’s mother, and that the kitchen is the underground cellar in his father’s house in Maiden Lane. Now there is no evidence in the drawing that the kitchen is an underground one, and we do not know for certain that the house in Maiden Lane even possessed an underground kitchen. But it is evident that the drawing must have been produced about 1795, because of the similarity of its handling to that of such drawings as the unfinished Carisbrook Castle. It is also evident that it was a work produced for exhibition, as there would have been no market for an en-graving of such a subject. Perhaps, therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that this drawing is the Interior of a Cottage : a study at Ely, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1796.

During these early years Turner had not only been painting for the exhibition and for private purchasers, he had also been busily employed producing designs for the engravers, and travelling far and wide in search of subjects. From his engraved work and exhibited pictures we see that between 1792 and 1796 he had visited Cambridge, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Derby ; he had been to Chester, Flint, Worcester, Gloucestershire, Salop, Hereford, Monmouth, and Kent ; he had been on more than one sketching tour through North and South Wales, and he had been to the Isle of Wight, taking in Winchester and Salisbury on the way.

The 1797 exhibition contained an oil painting, Moonlight : a study al Millbank (now in the possession of the National Gallery), a sea-piece, probably alSO in oil, and four views of Salisbury and Ely Cathedrals and Ewenny Priory. The Salisbury drawings, if they were anything like the later Salisbury now at South Kensington, must have been among the most beautiful water colours in the exhibition. That the sea-piece was duly admired we learn from a press cutting pasted in the Anderdon Collection of Academy catalogues :—” June 2, 1797.

Visited the Royal Academy exhibition. Particularly struck with a sea-view by Turner ; fishing vessels coming in, with a heavy swell, in apprehension of tempest gathering in the distance, and casting, as it advances, a night of shade, while a parting glow is spread with fine effect upon the shore. The whole composition is bold in design and masterly in execution. I am entirely unacquainted with the artist ; but if he proceeds as he has begun, he cannot fail to become the first in his department.”

Having thus established a brilliant reputation for so young a man—he was only twentytwo—Turner set off in the summer of this year for a tour through Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland, passing through Tweeddale, and returning through Cumberland and Westmoreland. Of the accomplished young master’s experiences in this Yorkshire trip, Mr Ruskin has given us an eloquent description. ” At last,” he writes, ” Fortune wills that the lad’s true life shall begin, and one summer’s evening, after various wonderful stage-coach experiences on the North Road, which gave him a love of stage-coaches ever afterwards, he finds himself sitting alone among the Yorkshire hills. For the first time the silence of Nature around him, her freedom sealed to him, her glory opened to him. Peace at last : no roll of cart-wheel, nor mutter of sullen voices in the back-shop ; but curlew-cry in space of heaven and welling of bell – toned streamlet by its shadowy rock. Freedom at last. Dead wall, dark railing, fenced field, gated garden, all passed away like the dream of a prisoner ; and behold, far as foot or eye can race or range, the moor and cloud. Loveliness at last,” and so on. This is really very beautiful, but it seems rather out of place when applied to such an experienced wanderer as Turner.

The beautiful study of Kirkstall Abbey (No. 403, among the exhibited drawings at the National Gallery), and the study for the Warkworth Castle, which we have reproduced, were among the drawings made on this tour.

Among the ten pictures in the exhibition of the following year (1798) were two oil paintings of the Cumberland subjects sketched in 1796, and seven water colours of the Yorkshire and North of England subjects. One of these, the Refectory of Kirkstall Abbey, is now in the Soane Museum, while the Norham Castle, which was afterwards engraved in the ” Liber,” seems to have been specially admired.

It is probable that Turner was in Wales during the summer of 1798, and the Harlech Castle, Kilgerran Castle, and the Abergavenny Bridge, Monmouthshire in the next year’s exhibition were among the results of this tour. It is probable that the Abergavenny Bridge may be identified with the fine drawing bequeathed by Mr Vaughan to the South Kensington Museum, now called A Bridge over the Usk (978—1800). The additional description originally given in the Academy catalogue supports this inference ; the effect of the picture is that of a fine evening after a wet day, and this agrees with Turner’s description — Clearing up after a Showery Day.

Hanging almost side by side with this picture is the Warkworth Castle, another of the exhibits of this year. It is a remarkably successful attempt to give richness and tone in water colour. Though the cleverness of the Warkworth Castle is not so assertive as that of Girtin’s View on the Wharf, it is yet a powerful and impressive work. It has that brooding sense of power that one finds in Cozens.

Drawings like the Usk Bridge and Warkworth formed a useful method of approach to oil painting. They habituated his mind to think in tones rather than in shapes or colour, and their success doubtless spurred him on to measure himself with the most celebrated oil painters of his time. His Battle of the Nile (1799) and The Fifth Plague of Egypt in the next year’s exhibition challenged De Loutherbourg’s supremacy. In a letter from Andrew Caldwell to Bishop Percy (dated June 14, 1802, and quoted by Mr Monkhouse), Turner is spoken of as beating ” De Loutherbourg and every other artist all to nothing.” So Turner gained his immediate object. He was elected an Associate of the Academy in 1800, and a full Member in 1802, the year of Girtin’s death.

But we must not bring this sketch of Turner’s early career to an end without mentioning some water colour drawings made probably in 1802, but which were not shown to the public till after his death.

We know from many sources what intense admiration Turner felt for Cozens’s work ; there are probably over a hundred of the copies he made from drawings by Cozens still in existence ; and his Diploma picture, Dolbadern Castle, North Wales, owes at least as much to Cozens’s influence as to Richard Wilson’s. It was therefore natural that the young master should take the earliest opportunity of visiting the spots where Cozens had found some of his best subjects. Accordingly, when the Peace of Amiens threw the Continent once more open to Englishmen, Turner hurried off to Switzerland. Eight of the coloured sketches made on this tour have been put together as Group V. (Second Hundred) in the eccentric arrangement which Mr Ruskin has made of the Turner drawings in the National Gallery. In dignity and impressiveness of effect they compare favourably with anything Turner ever did. Mr Ruskin speaks of them as “these quite stupendous memoranda,” but as they are not painted in rose pink and gamboge, but merely in sober browns and blues, they were not included among the exhibited drawings.

If we attempt to sum up in our own minds the general characteristics of this first period of Turner’s art, we find that it is based to an unusually large extent upon a painstaking and subtle study of gradations of light. It was the knowledge gained in such drawings as the Interior of a Cottage and Carisbrook Castle that enabled him to transform his earlier topo-graphical work into a style suitable for the highest kind of imaginative expression. Where the eaxlier men had worked chiefly in two dimensions, marking off foreground and distance in a perfunctory and conventional way, Turner was able to flood his picture with light and atmosphere, uniting the whole in an illusion of space. Whether we speak of the means by which this illusion of a third dimension is attained as the study of chiaroscuro, tone, or values seems of little moment ; the main thing is to recognise that this is the open secret of that luminous quality which Turner knows so well how to get, and which makes his drawings delightful even to those who take no interest in technical questions. In this way Turner was the true disciple of Gainsborough and Cozens, both of whom had based their profound and beautiful landscapes upon a study of tone rather than of form or colour.

How inaccurate and misleading is the opinion which discovers the true originality of Turner’s early work in a more careful discrimination of the local colours of objects, can be seen by an examination of the Warkworth Castle. Mr Samuel Redgrave, in his catalogue of the South Kensington Collection, said of this drawing : ” The minor details of trees, roads, etc., in the mass of shadow are locally imitated in colour, as is seen in the trees on the left and those near the houses on the brow of the hill in the mid-distance ” (p. 26). And it is as the result of this misleading analysis that Turner is claimed as one of those who made “a step in advance ” by substituting variety of colour for the primitive absence of colour of men like Cozens. But if anyone who knows what local colour means examines this drawing, he will find that the whole effect depends upon the submerging of the local colours of objects in the broad masses of light and shade. Where the trees catch the light they are painted in the same colour as the earth and rocks near them, and where they are in shadow they are painted the same colour as the other objects in shadow.

It is also worth remarking that in none of these drawings does Turner make the faintest attempt to reproduce the actual colours of Nature. There is no effort to make his pictures look like a “slice of reality,” or like a window opened on the scene itself. His work is always addressed to the imagination. Even when he paints direct from Nature, as in the unfinished Carisbrook Castle, he is merely bent on reproducing the gradations of light, leaving the actual colour of the trees and masonry and sky to take care of itself. The sketches in Switzerland are all made on paper covered with a light tint of Indian ink, brown and blue being almost the only colours used. His method of working in a predetermined scheme of colour is as conspicuous in his earliest works as in his latest. In later years he substituted a scheme of pinks, yellows, and blues for the earlier browns and blues. The results may be described as equally arbitrary in both cases ; the only difference between them—but this seems to be a very important one—is that the more restrained scheme of colour produces effects which correspond with the normal man’s impressions of reality, while the shrill polychromatic harmonies of the later manner often seem forced and unreal.