Review: Turner and the Masters

If you are planning to visit London anytime this term then this exhibition is a must-see. With his innovative and controversial approach to exhibition curation, David Solkin tells the story of Turner’s life, education, work and influences, placing him in the context of the art that shaped him.
Whilst Turner was a highly independent artist, forging a new genre of landscape painting, he was also deeply engaged with his artistic predecessors and contemporaries.

Indeed, Turner was constantly reacting to his artistic heritage and declared that ‘we may suffer ourselves to be too much led away by great names and to be too much subdued by their overbearing authority’. Turner would not be too much subdued – his responses to other works strike a complex balance of homage and one-upmanship. This exhibition provides an excellent insight into Turner’s methods, growth and unremitting ambition, and challenges the way we view his work.

The exhibition presents us with a series of dialogues between Turner and his influences. Turner’s presentation alongside his rival water colourist Thomas Girtin invites a fascinating critical comparison, and one which was commonly made when the two first emerged.

Girtin’s ‘Lindisfarne Castle’ is clearly referenced in Turner’s ‘Warkworth Castle’, whilst Girtin’s work is less detailed, using broad sweeping strokes, Turner is almost painfully tentative, the warm rays of sun illuminating the castle and the delicate ripples on the shore.

The pair’s rivalry was ended with Girtin’s death in 1802, but Turner continued to reference him, especially his iconic ‘The White House at Chelsea’ as shown by Turner’s ‘The Lauerzersee with the Mythens’.

four stars

Turner and the Masters is at Tate Britain until 31st January. Admission £12.50/£10.50

In this uniquely comparative exhibition, we are able to see not only the battles Turner wins but also the ones he loses. At times we see his own ambition defeat him as he attempts to rival Titian with scenes of religious figures such as his ‘The Holy Family’, in which the people are wooden and unengaging. At times, it seems that Turner had his fingers in too many pies.

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Another target of his rivalry was his contemporary David Wilkie. Wilkie, painting in the style of David Teniers, was celebrated for his realism, presenting evocative and unvarnished scenes from quotidian life. A particularly charming example is ‘The Blind Fiddler’ with its touching detail of a child’s drawing pinned to the cupboard. Turner’s attempt in ‘A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Pony’ seems by contrast as laboured and contrived as its title.

Also on display is Turner’s only royal commission from George V ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’, which was Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘The Glorious First of June’. The two monumental works comprise part of a larger commission commemorating the naval victories of the Hanoverian dynasty and were to be hung in the St. James palace, either side of George III’s portrait. When de Loutherbourg’s was first displayed it had been attacked for inaccuracy, however this was completely overshadowed by the controversy that Turner caused.

In response to a barrage of complaints from sailors, Turner spent eleven days making minor adjustments but this did little to calm the storm. The commission was intended to celebrate naval victories but Turner’s representation, with men suffering in the foreground and Victory’s falling mast, reminds us that the battle of Trafalgar was also a national tragedy because of Nelson’s death.

An exciting fact about this exhibition is that it reunites Turner’s ‘Helvoetsluys’ with Constable’s ‘Opening of Waterloo Bridge’, for the first time since they were exhibited together in the Royal Academy in 1832. The two were hung next to each other and in the final ‘varnishing days’ before its opening, Turner added a red buoy to his seascape to compete with Constable’s rich reds.

The incident is described by Constable’s first biographer, Charles Robert: ‘Turner stood behind [Constable], looking from the Waterloo to his own picture, and at last brought his palette from the great room where he was touching up another picture. And putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling on his grey sea, went away without saying a word.’ Constable famously said of the incident, ‘Turner has been here and fired a gun’.

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This cut-throat competitiveness in Turner gives us a unique insight to the way in which he shaped and continually fed his own reputation, securing a place for himself among ‘the masters’.

Perhaps the most strikingly beautiful Turner of the show is his ‘Snow Storm’. The rough brush strokes play with your vision, leading it through an intricate dance with no firm resting point. Every element conspires to sweep you up in its watery vortex. Indeed, Turner reportedly told a friend of John Ruskin that he ‘wished to show what such a scene was like; I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it.’

The painting itself, with its textured rhythm gives a real sense of the briny lashings of a sea storm and the deep vermilion hues descending from a dark cloud instil a theatrical violence.

The exhibition also contains Turner’s series from Venice with their marmalade skies and bustling jetties. The accompanying masterpieces by artists including Titian, Poussin, Rembrandt and Rubens are worth seeing in their own rights.
Altogether this exhibition provides a fine reconsideration of Turner’s oeuvre and is entirely worth a short trip on the Oxford Tube.