When James Mallord William Turner died in 1851, he left the paintings that remained in his estate to Great Britain. The nation, however, was ill prepared to receive this magnificent legacy, numbering nearly 300 oil paintings and some 30,000 works on paper. Turner had intended for a special gallery be built to display them, but they wound up moving from place to place until 1876, when they found a temporary home at the National Gallery in London. Finally, in 1910, the bulk of the bequest was transferred permanently to the Tate Gallery, now known simply as Tate, which opened a special wing for them in 1987. Ninety-three of Tate’s watercolors, together with four oils—said to be the largest selection of Turner’s work ever shown in the US—are on view through February 23 at Mystic Seaport Museum, across Long Island Sound in Connecticut, the exhibition’s only North American venue.
Turner was a child prodigy; he entered the Royal Academy at age 14, and exhibited his first watercolor there the following year. He soon became known for his uncanny ability to capture atmospheric effects, which he experienced on his many travels in Britain and on the Continent. The Tate collection includes nearly 300 sketchbooks from those trips, many with color notations for reference in the studio, where he would work up the material into finished oils and watercolors. The earliest work in the show, “View in the Avon Gorge,” a watercolor painted when Turner was all of 16, illustrates his mastery of sophisticated composition, with the river bend in counterpoint to the swirling clouds, and subtle tonality, two of the qualities that would become hallmarks of his mature work. It also shows that he could render details convincingly if he wanted to, belying his critics’ contention that his work was slapdash.
Organized in seven thematic sections, the exhibition charts Turner’s forays into various subjects, including topography, architecture, narrative and marine. Even two of the diagrams for his Academy lectures on perspective are included. Three of the four oils are part of the section devoted to seascapes, “Stormy Sea with Dolphins,” ca. 1835-40, being especially evocative. But the bulk, and great delight, of the show is the watercolors, some quite large, like the early “View of Fonthill Abbey,” at 41 ½ x 30 inches, in which the distant structure is scarcely visible in the mist. Most are in the small to medium size range, with many intimate sketches, especially in the “Light and Colour” section, that dispense with details in favor of generalized studies of natural phenomena such as storms, sunsets, winds and waves. It’s no wonder that Turner is widely considered to be the progenitor of Impressionism.
From the crags of Mont Blanc to the lowlands of Holland and coastal England, Turner sought and found vistas that he translated into his own sublime vision of nature. They often include sketchily rendered buildings and sailing vessels, as well as animals and human figures, both for scale and to emphasize the drama of the elements and their influence on civilization. But though Turner loved a good shipwreck, it’s not all turbulence and peril. The waters can also be calm, as in his glowing sunset over Venice’s lagoon, a luminous study of Lake Geneva, and a view of Bamburgh Castle, on the Northumberland coast, which he evidently visited on a rare clement day.
Those who have seen the outstanding biopic, “Mr. Turner,” in which Timothy Spall portrays him in later life, will know that the artist was famous for his iconoclastic techniques, including spitting on the canvas, scraping his watercolors with his fingernails, and working into his paintings with his fingers. You can find that effect in the current exhibition’s “Rain Falling Over the Sea Near Boulogne,” an 1845 watercolor, in which the clouds are streaked in by hand. Even when using conventional brushwork, Turner’s touch is autographic and the strokes are clearly visible, which gives many of his works a sketchy, unfinished character that was not universally admired in his day. One fellow Academician described them as “blots.” Actually he did use blotting, but with transcendent results, hailed by later generations of representational and abstract artists alike and beloved by the general public.
“J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate,” an unprecedented opportunity to see for yourself why the artist is held in such high regard, is only a ferry-ride away. No doubt the artist would be pleased if you were to brave the crossing.