Turner’s Later Work (1815-1851) – English Water Colour Painters

The difference between painting for “Judges” and for the public—The greater sensuousness of Turner’s later work—Horaby Castle and Old London Bridge—The English characteristics of the Hakewill drawings, and the Italian characteristics of the ‘ ` England and Wales ” series—A tawdry cosmopolitan ballet of the sentimental picturesque — ” All poets are liars” — The difference between fancy and imagination.

AFTER 1815 a change begins to come over the spirit of Turner’s work. In 1815 he exhibited what he seems to have regarded as his most perfect effort to embody the new poetry of nature in a picture ; he also exhibited a gaudy and theatrical pseudo-classical picture, the Dido building Carthage ; or, the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire. The public turned from the Crossing the Brook to gape itself silly before the Dido.

Before 1815 the artist had always remained true to himself. In all his work we can see that he is bent on giving us the best he can imagine, and that he does it as well as he can. He never sophisticates with his artistic conscience, never does a thing this way when he knows it ought to be done that way, simply because the public preferred it. One recalls in this connection the words he used in a dispute with a brother Academician who had maintained that artists should paint for the public : Turner took the opposite view, warmly asserting ” that public opinion was not worth a rush,” and ” that one should paint only for judges.”

Well, it is only in the work done before 1815 that one always feels that Turner was painting only ” for judges.” In much of the work done after this year there is some subtle indication that the artist was considering in one way or another that public opinion which, as he had said, ” was not worth a rush.” He wishes either to conciliate, or to astonish, or to flout his audience. After this date, he painted few pictures that seemed to come sweetly from nature—few works of pure inspiration, or of which one could say ” that they were painted from himself, and nobly from himself.”

It was not given to Turner to realise that. the artist, like every other “doer,” ought to practise his art with a view to his own advancement in goodness. But there are few who have the right to blame Turner for choosing the path of the successful professional man, and giving the public what they will applaud at once and pay well for.

Nearly all Turner’s biographers have noticed what one of them has called, the blight that seemed to come over the artist’s pictures which figured in the exhibitions during the next ten years. His best work was given to the water colours which were not exhibited. But these were nearly all produced for the engravers, that is to say, they were means to an end, and hence seldom possessed that self-standing completeness which characterises the works of the previous decade. However, the fact that they were intended to be engraved would not account for the difference we find. The “Liber” drawings were intended for the engraver, but then Turner was working in accordance with his own ideals. Before the Southern Coast drawings were finished he seems to have determined to subordinate the dictates of his own artistic conscience to the requirements of the engravers and to the taste of the public.

As yet he was incapable of the puerilities of the later vignettes and Keepsake illustrations. In many of the Southern Coast, the Rivers and Ports of England, and the Richmondshire drawings one recognises all the old magical sweetness and sincerity. In perfect drawings like the Kirkstall Abbey and More Park (N. G. 178 and 168) the artist has let his better self get the upper hand. But in some of the drawings the forms get hard, the objects get insulated and ” mappy “—evidently to save the engravers from blundering too easily ; often the colour gets crude and forced, and the design, instead of falling together with the old unconstrained felicity, now seems forced into a superficial harmony merely by the strength of the artist’s will and the abundance of his knowledge.

Those who care nothing for the highest beauties of art will find little to regret in the later drawings. Their sensuous attractiveness is greater than that of the earlier work. What a wealth of formal decoration has been lavished on the Hornby Castle (one of the Richmond-shire series) now in the South Kensington Museum, and upon the Old London Bridge in the Jones Collection in the same museum.

What entrancing colour do they contain ! Only those who have found something more in art than the capacity for flattering and caressing the eye will come away from these delightful and highly seasoned drawings with a sense of something unsatisfied.

When one has learnt to discount the admiration for Turner’s technical skill—and this admiration easily runs almost to idolatry, especially among artists, so superlatively is Turner gifted in this way—one finds oneself driven to the conclusion that such drawings are simply too pretty to be true. Their intoxicating colour does not carry conviction. Such polychromatic visions are not “emanations of reality and truth ” ; they are images of the “fond illusions” of the painter’s heart. This is no more Hornby in Yorkshire than that is the Old London Bridge near Billingsgate. This is generally recognised, but it is argued that they are something better than the truth. But to turn the labours and labourers of Billingsgate into the numbers of such a heavenly harmony betrays a certain callousness and indifference. It is not that Billings-gate has not its own virtues, or that the men and women who work there are not fit subjects for the artist and the poet. But there is too little correspondence between the subject and its setting, between the subject-matter and the high-pitched lyrical key in which the picture is pitched. The artist’s fortitude before the “sights of what is to be borne ” has deserted him. He turns from the sorrows and suffering he sees everywhere to find refuge in dreams of what is not, using the alchemy of art to turn the sinners and sufferers he sees into the gaudy figurants of a delightful tableau. Instead of feeling deeply and sanely and wisely in the presence of things seen, Turner now, like Glover, is beginning to learn not to see those unpleasant details which do not fit in with his preconceived fancies of what things ought to look like.

This tendency which we find in the Hornby and Old London Bridge—which we may accept as typical of the work of the years between 1815 and 1825—becomes more pronounced as Turner gets older. He cares less and less for objective truth, and relies more constantly on the witchery of his gaudy colour and the cunning artifice of his intricate design.

The man who could illustrate Hakewill’s Tour in Italy with scenes full of the verdure and characteristic grace of English scenery, would find no difficulty, after his first visit to Italy, in transfusing English scenery with Italian characteristics. The drawings of the England and Wales series are ravishing and enchanting, but they possess little that is distinctively English or Welsh. There is always a germ of local truth in them, but it is hidden under an elaborate superstructure of phantasy. The artist knows the scenes he draws as intimately as it is possible for an artist to know them–and it is this that adds to their extraordinary fascination but he has ceased to care for his subject-matter, and is more concerned with his thaumaturgie display of pictorial artistry. The English hills and dales, our unpretending houses and modest trees, be-come transfigured into symbols of lyrical rapture or masquerade as actors in a tawdry cosmopolitan ballet of the sentimental picturesque.

When Turner’s Bay of Baioe. was exhibited his old friend Jones remonstrated with him on the topographical liberties which had been taken, and he wrote on the frame of the picture “Splendide mendax.” Turner was so amused with his friend’s audacity that he re-fused to have the remark removed. ” All poets are liars,” he said, ” but it is all there.” And this is the line of defence taken by the artist’s most eloquent champion. But such a defence shows a confused, though far fro w an uncommon, conception of what is meant by truth. There is no doubt that Turner travelled over a large part of the face of Europe, sketch-book in hand, and with eyes ever on the alert ; wherever he went he was busy seizing details which could afterwards be incorporated into his pictures. And there can be little doubt that even the wildest of his later pictures is made up in this way from facts abstracted here and there and heaped together according to pictorial requirements. But what destroys all claims to truth in the results thus obtained is, that the facts have been abstracted from their natural setting, and that they have been bound together in defiance of the claims of probability.

Thus, after 1815, we must look upon Turner as the most prominent representative among the painters, of that confusion of thought which mistakes the illusive colouring of fancy for the highest poetry. After this date, but even more conspicuously after 1825, his work is designed to startle the world into attention by its audacity and extravagance ; it is generally composed of a selection and cunning arrangement of incidents “by which the mind is kept upon the stretch of curiosity, and the fancy amused without the trouble of thought.” As such, his later work has dazzled and called up the admiration of the multitude, and the influence of his example has been as widespread as it has been vicious.

Those who judge art by the gorgeousness of its trappings or the novelty of the thrill which it cummunicates will naturally prefer drawings like the Rivers of France or the Lake of Brienz to drawings like the Scarborough Castle and the Ivy Bridge.