Doubts were widespread until late June if summer would ever come this year to the South of France. Skies were overcast, and when it rained constantly with temperatures dropping to near freezing points, organisers at the Caumont Centre d’Art — which opened the Turner exhibition in the otherwise normally sunny city of Aix-en-Provence — feared not many art enthusiasts, especially foreigners, would cross their threshold.
Their fears proved unfounded as bright, sunny and lengthy days finally arrived. So did visitors who were stunned to discover the sun-washed 130 or so masterpieces on display, as flamboyant and colourful as the outdoor scenes in Aix-en-Provence itself. It is a pleasure to see these paintings again and again.
The title “Turner and the Colours” is aptly chosen for the exhibition follows, in a thematically advancing course, the astounding career of one of the greatest British artists of all times. As one studies the landscapes and seascapes placed in a chronological order, one cannot miss the point that chiefly self-taught, Joseph Mallord William Turner (born in London in 1775) was initially inspired by Baroque and Renaissance-age Italian and French geniuses such as Titian, Canaletto and Poussin.
The Caumont Centre d’Art in France gave an opportunity for art enthusiasts to experience the astounding work of one of the greatest British artists of all times
After ‘Fishermen at the Sea’, that he painted at the age of 21, Turner would remain fascinated throughout his long career by vast, panoramic outdoor scenes and the sun in all its moods, forms and colours.
An important part of Turner’s career was his incessant travels, first between London and the Scottish countryside; then from 1802 until the end of his life in 1851, to France, Switzerland, Holland and Italy. The sea and the skylight in Venice would remain one of the main sources of his inspiration. This was evident in his work, especially in ‘The Deluge’.
From 1840 onwards Turner would also try a new experiment and would excel in it as he did in all his other daring artistic adventures. This was a kaleidoscopic angle through which he saw the mountain peaks of Switzerland, the riverbanks of France and the sea waves of Holland and Italy — painting hallucinating scenes in a circular style that would later become his trademark. His painting ‘Morning after the Deluge’ is another one of such spheroid creations.
Turner was, however, way ahead of his time and his contemporary art critics often made fun of what was then considered his incomprehensible and mind-boggling method. But there were also those who readily recognised his genius and qualified him as a visionary and a magician of colours.
Another source of Turner’s inspiration would remain the Baroque age French-Italian painter Claude Gellée, known as Le Lorrain, in whose works horizons in land and sea depictions strike onlookers as what appear to be scenes from an earthy paradise. In his lifetime Turner donated two of his paintings to the National Gallery of Art in London, but under the condition that they be displayed with a work of Le Lorrain between them. Today you still see that setting intact at the National Gallery.
The arrangement of Turner’s paintings in the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence emphasises his gradual abandoning of visual landscapes as he matured and the increasing confidence in his imagination and the fantasies he created. Works painted in the final years of his career such as ‘Moses writing Genesis’ fall into this category.
Though the reputation of the ‘Painter of Light’, as he is often called, chiefly depended on his oil works, JMW Turner also created a large amount of watercolour masterpieces and his contribution in this field too remains undeniable.
The exhibition began on May 4th and will last until the September 18th at Centre d’Art, Aix-en-Provence, France
Among the most revered works by the great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) are those representing the world dissolved by light, steam, fog, smoke, rain, wind and snow. One of his favorite settings for his evocations of elemental chaos was the ocean, a place where nature regularly overwhelms human challenges to its dominion.
In this vein, late in his career, when he was around 70, Turner made the dangerous business of whaling the subject of four paintings. He exhibited two of them at the Royal Academy in London in 1845 and the others in 1846, but they’ve never been shown all together until now, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art has united them in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” an exceptionally thought-provoking exhibition.
The show’s centerpiece is “Whalers” (circa 1845), which the Met owns. The massive dark head of a wounded sperm whale erupts above the mossy-green sea surface to the left, bloody water streaming over its back. Its tail is visible in glimpses amid the froth to the right, while in the middle, an oarsman struggles to keep afloat his small boat, from which his mates have been tossed into the brine. In the background, rendered in pale grays, the three-masted whaling vessel, with all sails raised, looms like a ghost ship against a white sky.
This description makes the picture seem clearer than it is. Made in a proto-Impressionist manner, with paint applied in flurries of marks and in sweeping gestures, it projects a blurry scene, more dreamlike than conventionally realistic. If you’re interested in detailed pictorial documentation of the whaling industry, this is not the most informative of sources.
The other three paintings, all owned by the Tate, London, are similarly indistinct and lushly atmospheric while depicting events of terrific excitement. In the second painting from 1845, also titled “Whalers,” harpooners stand on the bows of two boats, aiming their weapons at the dark hump of a surfacing whale spouting a bloody geyser. “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (1846) depicts through a thick, glowing haze the aftermath of a successful hunt, with men in boats to the left celebrating, and others, on the ship to the right, taking apart their catch.
Were it not for the explanatory museum labels, a viewer today would have a hard time making out what’s going on in either of the two later works. Observers in Turner’s day regularly remarked on his painterly obfuscations. Writing about one of the whaling pictures, a critic noted, “There is a charming association of colour here — the emerald green tells with exceeding freshness; but it would be impossible to define anything in the composition save the rigging of the ship.” The reference to color may puzzle today’s viewers. Turner often used fugitive pigments that eventually lost their vibrancy. His whaling pictures probably used to be more colorful than they are now.
Turner himself never went on a whaling voyage, and it’s possible that he never saw a whale, alive or dead. Few people had, which is why the subject piqued imaginations. The exhibition’s organizer, Alison Hokanson, an assistant curator at the Met, writes in an excellent essay published in a museum bulletin, “The open ocean in Turner’s day was akin to deep space today: a vast and mostly uncharted realm that was often the stuff of fantasy.” Elsewhere, she notes: “Whales, and particularly sperm whales, were quasi-mythological creatures. Most people had never seen one of the animals, and existing images and descriptions, even scientific ones, were generally inaccurate.”
Figuratively speaking, the whale Turner was trying to capture was the Sublime, a topic on the minds of the philosophers, artists and poets of his day. The Sublime was whatever exceeded human comprehension by virtue of its vastness and dynamism. In those Post-Enlightenment times, you could doubt the existence of God, but the Sublime was undeniably manifest, if not fully comprehensible, in mountains, volcanoes, typhoons, the ocean and giant creatures of the deep. Turner’s incandescent pictures teeter on the brink of the unknowable, at the outer limits of imagination, where the real vaporizes into the infinite.
Scholars are uncertain whether Herman Melville ever saw Turner’s whaling pictures, but he knew about them. He wrote, “Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book” in a copy of “The Natural History of the Sperm Whale,” a study by Thomas Beale that Turner did, in fact, consult. Unlike Turner’s paintings, Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, the Whale” is filled with enough detail to serve as a textbook on the whaling industry.
But the novelist and the painter were kindred spirits in their pursuits of the awesome and the terrifying. The exhibition’s introductory wall text quotes a passage from the third chapter of “Moby-Dick,” in which Ishmael describes a large, old, much abused painting of a whale attacking a ship that he came upon at the Spouter-Inn: “A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.”
It would be wonderful to think of Turner reading “Moby-Dick” and recognizing his own work in Ishmael’s heated description, but it’s almost certain that he didn’t. He died in December 1851, just two months after the publication of Melville’s epic tragedy.
How exactly did the Carthaginian general and his elephants reach Italy? Scientists have got their hands dirty to come up with an answer.
Having battled their deadly rivals the Romans in Spain, in 218BC the Carthaginian army made a move that no one expected. Their commander Hannibal marched his troops, including cavalry and African war elephants, across a high pass in the Alps to strike at Rome itself from the north of the Italian peninsula. It was one of the greatest military feats in history.
The Romans had presumed that the Alps created a secure natural barrier against invasion of their homeland. They hadn’t reckoned with Hannibal’s boldness. In December he smashed apart the Roman forces in the north, assisted by his awesome elephants, the tanks of classical warfare. Many of the animals died of cold or disease the following winter, but Hannibal fought his way down throughItaly. For 15 years he ravaged the land, killing or wounding over a million citizens but without taking Rome. But when he faced the Roman general Scipio Africanus at Zama in north Africa in 202BC, his strategic genius met its match. So ended the second Punic war, with Rome the victor.
Hannibal’s alpine crossing has been celebrated in myth, art and film. JMW Turnermade high drama of it in 1812, a louring snowstorm sending the Carthaginians into wild disarray. The 1959 sword-and-sandals epic movie, with Victor Mature in the eponymous title role, made Hannibal’s “crazed elephant army” look more like the polite zoo creatures they obviously were.
The battles didn’t end with Scipio’s victory, though. Much ink, if not blood, has been spilled in furious arguments between historians over the precise route that Hannibal took across the Alps. The answer makes not a blind bit of difference to the historical outcome, but there’s clearly something about that image of elephants on snowy peaks that makes experts care deeply about where exactly they went.
An international team of scientists now thinks the puzzle is largely solved. Its leader, geomorphologist Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, began pondering the question almost two decades ago by looking at geographical and environmental references in the classical texts. He and his colleagues have just revealed surprising new evidence supporting their claim to have uncovered Hannibal’s path.
The three Punic wars were a struggle for dominance of the Mediterranean region by the two great trading and military powers of the third and second centuries BC: Carthage and Rome. Carthage, a former Phoenician city-state in present-day Tunis, had an empire extending over most of the north African coast as well as the southern tip of Iberia. Rome was then still a republic, and the two states were locked in a power struggle apt to flare into open war, until the Romans annihilated Carthage in 146BC.
Hannibal, son of general Hamilcar who led troops in the first Punic war, gave Carthage its most glorious hour. He is ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and his nemesis Scipio as one of the greatest military strategists of the ancient world, and his alpine crossing plays a big part in that reputation. Most of what we know about it comes from the accounts given by the Roman writers Polybius (c200-118BC) and Livy (59BC-AD17). They make it sound truly harrowing.
As the Carthaginian army ascended from the Rhône valley in Gaul, they were harassed and attacked by mountain tribes who, knowing the territory, set ambushes, dropped boulders and generally wrought havoc. During the descent the Carthaginians were mostly unmolested, but now the mountains themselves threatened mortal danger. The Alps are steeper on the Italian side, and the path is narrow, hemmed in by precipices.
“Because of the snow and of the dangers of his route [Hannibal] lost nearly as many men as he had done on the ascent,” wrote Polybius. “Since neither the men nor the animals could be sure of their footing on account of the snow, any who stepped wide of the path or stumbled, overbalanced and fell down the precipices.”
At length they reached a spot where the path suddenly seemed impassable, as Livy describes it: “A narrow cliff falling away so sheer that even a light-armed soldier could hardly have got down it by feeling his way and clinging to such bushes and stumps as presented themselves.”
“The track was too narrow for the elephants or even the pack animals to pass,” writes Polybius. “At this point the soldiers once more lost their nerve and came close to despair.”
Hannibal tried a detour on the terrifying slopes to the side of the path, but the snow and mud were too slippery. So instead he set his troops to construct a road from the rubble, and after backbreaking labour he got the men, horses and mules down the slope and below the snowline. The elephants were another matter – it took three days to make a road wide enough. Finally, says Polybius, Hannibal “succeeded in getting his elephants across, but the animals were in a miserable condition from hunger”.
Where exactly Hannibal crossed the Alps was a point of contention even in the days of Polybius and Livy. Nineteenth-century historians argued about it, and even Napoleon weighed in. The controversy was still raging a hundred years later. Some authorities proposed a northerly path, past present-day Grenoble and through two passes over 2,000 metres high. Others argued for a southerly course across the Col de la Traversette – the highest road, reaching 3,000m above sea level. Or might the route have been some combination of the two, starting in the north, then weaving south and north again?
The southern route was advocated in the 1950s-60s by Sir Gavin de Beer, director of the British Museum (natural history), who published no fewer than five books on the subject. He combed the classical texts and tried to tie them in to geographical evidence – for example, identifying Hannibal’s river crossings from the timings of floods. “All of us more or less follow de Beer’s footprint,” says Mahaney.
For Mahaney, it began as a hobby and become a labour of love. “I’ve read classical history since my ordeal getting through four years of Latin in high school,” he says. “I can still see my old Latin teacher pointing his long stick at me.”
He went looking for clues in the landscapes. Both Polybius and Livy mention that the impasse faced by Hannibal was created by fallen rocks. Polybius, who got his information firsthand by interviewing some of the survivors from Hannibal’s army, describes the rockfall in detail, saying that it consisted of two landslides: a recent one on top of older debris. In 2004 Mahaney found from field trips and aerial and satellite photography that, of the various passes along the proposed routes, only the Col de Traversette had enough large rockfalls above the snowline to account for such an obstruction.
There’s an old, steep track of rubble leading out of this pass – which might conceivably be based on the very one made by Hannibal’s engineers. What’s more, in 2010 Mahaney and co-workers found a two-layer rockfall in the pass that seemed a good match for that which Polybius mentioned. “No such deposit exists on the lee side of any of the other cols,” he says.
He suspects Hannibal did not intend to come this way, but was forced to avoid the lower cols to the north because of the hordes of Gauls massing there. “They were every bit Hannibal’s equal, and no doubt hungry to loot his baggage train,” Mahaney says.
The rockfall evidence was pretty suggestive. But could Mahaney and his team of geologists and biologists find anything more definitive? Since 2011 they’ve been looking in a peaty bog 2,580m up in the mountains, just below of the Col de la Traversette. It’s one of the few places where Hannibal’s army could have rested after crossing the col, being the only place in the vicinity with rich soil to support the vegetation needed for grazing horses and mules.
The researchers rolled up their sleeves and dug into the mire. What they found was mud. And more mud. Not very informative, you might think. But mud can encode secrets. Taking an army of tens of thousands, with horses and elephants, over the Alps would have left one heck of a mess. More than two millennia later, Mahaney might have found it.
The peaty material is mostly matted with decomposed plant fibres. But at a depth of about 40cm this carbon-based material becomes much more disturbed and compacted, being mixed up with finer-grained soil. This structure suggests that the bog became churned up when the layer was formed. That’s not seen in any other soils from alpine bogs, and isn’t easily explained by any natural phenomenon such as grazing sheep or the action of frost. But it’s just what you’d expect to see if an army with horses and elephants passed by – rather like the aftermath of a bad year at the Glastonbury festival. This soil can be radiocarbon-dated – and the age comes out almost spookily close to the date of 218BC attested by historical records as the time of Hannibal’s crossing.
The researchers then took samples of this disturbed mud back to the lab, where they used chemical techniques to identify some of its organic molecules. These included substances found in horse dung and the faeces of other ruminants. There’s some of this stuff throughout the mire mud, but significantly more in the churned-up layer.
What’s more, this section also contained high levels of DNA found in a type of bacteria called clostridia, which are very common in the gut of horses (and humans). In other words, the layer of disturbed mud is full of crap (perhaps not so different from Glastonbury either). Aside from a passing army, it’s not easy to see where it might have come from – not many mammals live up here, except for a few sheep and some hardy marmots.
That’s not all. Microbiologists collaborating with the team think they might have found a distinctive horse tapeworm egg in the samples. “There is even the possibility of finding an elephant tapeworm egg,” says Mahaney’s long-term collaborator, microbiologist Chris Allen of Queen’s University Belfast. “This would really be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” It’s just a shame, he adds, that “the pot of gold is actually a layer of horse manure”. Evidence of elephants at the site would surely be a smoking gun, since you don’t find many of them wandering wild in the Alps.
Meanwhile, Mahaney hopes, if he can find the funding, to mount a radar survey of the entire mire and other mires nearby to search for items dropped by the passing army. “My sniffer tells me some will turn up,” he says – “coins, belt buckles, sabres, you name it.”
Unless they do, other experts may reserve judgment. Patrick Hunt, an archaeologist who leads the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project, which has been investigating Hannibal’s route since 1994, says that the answer to the puzzle “remains hauntingly elusive”. It’s all too easy, he says, for fellow experts to adduce evidence for their favoured route – his team argues for a more northerly path – but until the same methods and rigour are brought to bear on all the alternatives, none can be ruled out. All the same, he adds, Mahaney is one of the best geo-archaeologists working on the question. “He continues to be a trailblazer in the field,” says Hunt, “and I’d love to collaborate with him, because he’s asking excellent questions.”
If Mahaney can secure firm evidence – such as chemical or microbial fingerprints of elephant faeces – it would be the culmination of a personal quest. “The Hannibal enigma appealed to me for the sheer effort of getting the army across the mountains,” he says. “I have been in the field for long times with 100 people, and I can tell you it can be pandemonium. How Hannibal managed to get thousands of men, horses and mules, and 37 elephants over the Alps is one magnificent feat.”
ARTIST JMW Turner is well known for his connection to the seaside town Margate, where a contemporary art gallery has been named after him.
However, it has now emerged that he may actually have preferred Deal, another seaside town 25 miles south.
A recently unearthed medical record has shed new light on the artist’s secret life away from Margate, a time he spent living anonymously and where he painted three major works.
Director Mike Leigh’s biographical film Mr Turner, which focused on the last 25 years of the acclaimed painter’s life, showed actor Timothy Spall as the artist living in Margate with widow Sophia Booth, who became his lover.
However, Turner, who died in 1851 aged 76, was actually a deeply secretive man. So when the Kent seaside town became a popular retreat for Londoners he persuaded Mrs Booth to move away with him to Deal.
However, Turner, who died in 1851 aged 76, was actually a deeply secretive man. So when the Kent seaside town became a popular retreat for Londoners he persuaded Mrs Booth to move away with him to Deal.
They bought an 18th century two-storey property in Beach Street, with an attic and direct views of the English Channel and Goodwin Sands.
While there, Turner found himself able to walk around the town in peace as an anonymous resident and painted three major works, Sailing Boat Off Deal, Off Deal and Deal In A Storm.
Their house in Beach Street may also have featured in Turner’s notebooks, now held by the Tate Gallery.
Several pages show sketches and detailed drawings for room changes.
The fresh evidence of Turner’s life in Deal comes from a medical record which shows Dr David Price from Margate making 10 visits to Deal in 1848 to treat the artist for cholera.
For the past 30 years the house in Beach Street has been owned by Graham and Shirley Stiles, who run an 18th century pub in the same road along with their son James.
“I was a little taken back by the news. We knew Turner visited Deal often, but not that he owned my house,” said Mr Stiles.
Dr Selby Whittingham, secretary of The Independent Turner Society, said: “These are interesting new discoveries. For too long Turner’s connection with Deal has been down played.”
The Mayor of Deal, Cllr Adrian Friend, added: “This is fantastic news. I hope Turner was happy here.”
As a Tate Britain exhibition shows, the artist’s later work offered a sharply political criticism of industrial society
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
The sea broils with war. Sails hover like veils above the dead and dying. Is this the Victory or defeat?
JMW Turner’s painting The Battle of Trafalgar 21 October 1805 is well worth looking at on Trafalgar Day, 210 years after Nelson’s stunning defeat of the French and Spanish fleets that changed the course of the Napoleonic wars and established a British naval supremacy that lasted into modern times.
This great battle painting, which rightly has a room to itself in the National Maritime Museum, has some strange things about it. The survivors of Trafalgar who saw it when it was completed in 1824 were not happy at all. Turner’s sublime array of interwoven French and British ships gathered round the shining wooden wall of HMS Victory did not look like their memories. But most troubling of all – and most striking today – is Turner’s portrayal of human suffering at the centre of his painting.
Men whose ships have sunk or who have been thrown overboard by cannon blasts (men on both sides) are clinging to boats and wreckage in the wild sea, with a huge union jack floating, like a shroud, over the grisly waters.
Turner is doing something even more daring here than first meets the eye. This focus on the dead, the dying and the wounded seems subversive in a picture of a great British victory. But it is all the darker when you recognise his pictorial source. In 1820, two years before Turner got commissioned by George IV to paint his Trafalgar epic, a shocking work of art was shown at the Egyptian Hall in London. It was The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault – a terrifying scene of starving, perhaps cannibal, victims of an ocean disaster struggling to survive on a raft on the open sea.
When you realise Turner must have seen The Raft of the Medusa in 1820 it is easy to see how he quotes it visually in his painting of Trafalgar. The swarm of men in the water resemble the poor people on Géricault’s bereft raft. A near-naked body slung over the side of a boat in the foreground of Turner’s picture, trailing in the water, closely replicates a very similar figure that is one of the most harrowing details in The Raft of the Medusa.
The Raft of the Medusa is a vision of utter despair. To quote it in a painting of a famous victory is spectacularly subversive. But Turner had unpatriotic form.
In a previous painting of Trafalgar, done just after the battle itself and today in Tate Britain, Turner imagines how the battle looked from the Mizen Starboard shrouds of the Victory. It looks like hell. A terrible smoky entanglement of masts and rigging looms over ships fighting at close quarters. Men lie dead and dying everywhere, hit by bullets as cannon blast into the invisible lower decks. Among the fallen is Nelson – but the heroic admiral who died at the moment of his greatest triumph is just one of the victims of a battle both fair and foul.
War is chaos, it is a nightmare. That is Turner’s take on military heroism. He shows another scene of devastation, where friend and enemy are equal in death, in his painting The Field of Waterloo.
We must remember battles. We must remember what they are really like. Great art helps us to see that, on Trafalgar Day and every day.
A boat journey taken by renowned romantic artist JMW Turner along the River Thames is to be recreated to launch a new exhibition of his work.
The Waverley will voyage from London along the coast of Kent to Margate, home of the Turner Contemporary, next year to celebrate the gallery’s fifth anniversary.
The boat, with up to 90 people on board, will follow the route first taken by the artist as a boy, at the start of the Turner and Colour exhibition in October.
A gallery spokeswoman said: “Turner first came to Margate aged 11, having been sent by his parents to school in Love Lane in Margate Old Town. He returned to sketch there aged 21 and from the 1820s onwards became a regular visitor.
“His connection with the seaside town was the founding inspiration for Turner Contemporary. The artist loved Margate for the sea, the skies, and his landlady Mrs Booth.”
Turner and the widowed Mrs Booth began a love affair in Margate where she is now immortalised in his bronze shell lady sculpture, which resides at the end of the Harbour Arm.
The gallery said Turner and Colour will be the largest exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK, featuring more than 70 paintings, including the fullest collection of the artist’s watercolours of Margate.
The 2016 programme will also include works by Barbara Hepworth, Anish Kapoor and Ben Richardson amongst others.