JMW Turner, art master and polemicist

As a Tate Britain exhibition shows, the artist’s later work offered a sharply political criticism of industrial society

JMW Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 Oil paint on canvas support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1230 x 1530 x 140 mm painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
JMW Turner Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 Oil paint on canvas support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1230 x 1530 x 140 mm painting Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

For many art historians, the last years of JMW Turner’s life have sometimes looked like a let-down. It’s not hard to see why: in contrast to the string of triumphs that defined his early career, his old age was dominated by pain and disappointment. After turning 60 in 1835, his health began to fail. Weakened by influenza, robbed of his teeth and tormented by failing eyesight, he became, in his own words, “an invalid and a sufferer”.

Doggedly, he kept working, but he increasingly found himself alienated from public taste. Although he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy – of which he had been a fellow since 1802 – his art was scorned by the critics. With the exception of John Ruskin, almost all of them looked down on his style. In 1836, his works were derided as “childish” by Blackwood’s Magazine, and in 1842, one visitor dismissed Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth as all “soapsuds and whitewash”.

Tate Britain’s exhibition “Late Turner – Painting Set Free”, however, casts these years in a completely different light and shows just how wrong Turner’s critics were. Covering the period between 1835 and his death in 1851, the paintings are a testament to the remarkable originality of his declining years, and demonstrate that – despite the harsh judgments of his contemporaries – some of his finest works actually belong to his dotage.

Far from having been hampered by his failing eyesight, these works show that Turner succeeded in turning it to his advantage, anticipating the Impressionists by decades. Applying successive layers of translucent colour, he filled his canvases with a rich, hazy light, while using a restricted tonal range to fill his works with a rare poignancy and power.

Their vibrancy is hard to ignore. Based on sketches made during his travels in France, Switzerland and Italy in this period, pieces such as Fishermen on the Lagoon, Moonlight (1840) have an almost dream-like quality that elevates them into the realm of pure, unalloyed emotion.

But what is striking about the works in this exhibition is not their technical originality, but their highly political and often sharply polemical tone. Like many other Romantic painters of the day, Turner had recognised the role that art could play in social and political change; but it was only in his old age that he began to explore the potential for artistic commentary in full.

Turner – like his younger contemporary Charles Dickens – was a sharp critic of the industrial and commercial change sweeping mid-19th-century Britain. Casting a locomotive as a dark, sinister beast carving a pitiless path through the landscape in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), he drew attention to the threat posed to the natural beauty of the English countryside by the industrial revolution; while in The Slave Ship (1840), he depicted the appalling human cost of the illegal trade in slaves.

Turner’s most powerful – and subtle – attacks were, however, directed at the changes sweeping the political world. Although the Tate’s curators omit to mention the fact, the last 16 years of his life coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval across Europe. But while many of his fellow artists were caught up in the revolutionary ferment of the day, Turner was profoundly at odds with the fervour gripping Europe. In his mind, a cancer was eating away at the heart of political life, and Britain – along with most of the continent – was going to the dogs.

Turner chose to explore this theme of moral and political decline through the history of ancient Rome. Classical historians had attributed Rome’s fall not to military defeat or barbarian invasion, but to the loss of virtue. Seduced by wealth and luxury, the Romans had, they believed, abandoned their commitment to duty and public service, and let the state rot from within. It was this narrative that Turner examined in paintings such as Regulus (1828; reworked 1837). In this dramatic work, the visual rhetoric of light and darkness is brought to bear on Regulus’s willingness to accept blindness and death so that his country would continue its struggle against Carthage, and illustrates the common Roman belief that it was after Carthage’s final defeat that Rome’s moral fibre began to decline.

The relevance that this had for Turner’s own times was plain to see. Although Britain and her European neighbours were reaching the peak of their imperial and commercial prowess by the time of Turner’s death, they were losing their moral fibre.

No longer motivated by duty and public service, both governments and revolutionaries were adrift on a sea of luxury and self-indulgence. And, as Rome’s history showed, only disaster could follow.

There is, indeed, a sense that in The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835), Turner sought to show that the end had already begun.

It is this profoundly political dimension to Turner’s later works that makes Tate Britain’s exhibition especially welcome. While it succeeds in rehabilitating the reputation of the artist’s final works, it also invites us to apply the message of his paintings to our own times. Like the aged Turner, we are surrounded by political upheavals. Civil wars rage in Ukraine and Syria, northern Iraq is in the grip of conflict, and in our own country, domestic troubles abound. But, as Turner suggested of his own age, what is lacking is a morality of politics.

If this exhibition shows anything, it shows that the time has come for a rebirth of the civic virtues of old before it is too late. It is only telling that it takes an artist scorned in his own times – rather than a politician in ours – to show us this.

Alexander Lee’s latest book, ‘The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Disease and Excess in an Age of Beauty’, is published by Arrow

by Alexander Lee

Source: The Telegraph

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