Turner, the sea and the Summer Exhibition

Published 28 November 2013

The exhibition Turner and the Sea opened last week at National Maritime Museum. Exhibitions Manager, Philippa Simpson, reveals the extent to which JMW Turner ensured his seascapes stood out at crowded Academy exhibitions.

Shortly after his death on 19 December 1851, until his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral on 30 December, JMW Turner’s body lay in state in the centre of the gallery he had constructed next to his house on Queen Anne Street, London, surrounded by the paintings he had chosen to leave to the nation.

Since his earliest years the artist had been a keen self-publicist and this final ‘exhibition’ underscores a crucial aspect of his work’s reception – the central place of the man himself. From his first submission to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to this final display in his own gallery, Turner strategically constructed both a reputation for his paintings and a persona for himself, at the heart of which were his pictures of the sea.

Turner’s first brush with publicity came at a young age, when his proud father would charge visitors a shilling to see works by his precocious son pinned up in his barber shop. Joining the Royal Academy Schools in 1789, aged just 14, Turner entered the brutally competitive fray of the RA exhibitions enthusiastically and, determined to command the attention of the 90,000 people who attended annually, selected as his first exhibited oil painting a dramatic seascape, Fishermen at Sea (1796, pictured).

In the final decades of the 18th century, comparatively few seascapes appeared at the RA, predominantly by the same few artists, including Dominic Serres, Nicholas Pocock and Robert Cleveley. Fishermen at Sea, by contrast, did not rely upon accurate detail or patriotic sentiment to attract an audience, but rather drew attention to the facture of the painting itself. With its turbulent waves and intricate light effects, the picture allowed Turner to display a virtuoso handling of material, clearly designed to catch the eye.

Turner regularly exhibited paintings of the sea at the RA over the next 10 years, achieving a notable success with Dutch Boats in a Gale (1801), commissioned as a companion piece to a picture by the celebrated Dutch sea painter Willem van de Velde. But despite being ‘a peculiar favourite of the spectators’, as the Monthly Mirror noted, this tour de force fell victim to a circumstance that was to become all too familiar to Turner: the luck of the hang. Turner was increasingly obliged to consider his sea pictures as participants in a battle for popular appeal, a challenge to which he became ever more alert.

In 1804, the Royal Academician Joseph Farington recalled Turner’s anxiety about Boats Carrying out Anchors and Cables to Dutch Men of War, in 1665 (1804) being hung directly underneath a particularly eye-catching portrait by John Singleton Copley containing a dazzling expanse of white drapery. Almost 30 years later, on seeing John Constable’s brightly coloured Opening of Waterloo Bridge hung next to the more muted Helvoetsluys (1832), Turner added a small but conspicuous paint mark to his sea, which he then shaped into a red buoy. Constable, recognising that this simple gesture made his own heavily worked painting look ridiculously overblown, famously declared that Turner ‘has been here, and fired a gun’.

Turner built upon the celebrity acquired by Dutch Boats in a Gale with two exhibits the following year: Ships Bearing up for Anchorage (1802) and Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore (1802, pictured), both of which, despite heavy working, create the impression of a scene speedily recorded. The work was declared ‘a masterly performance’, but the same critic struggled to reconcile the emotive force of the work with familiar modes of ‘reading’ a painting: ‘we regret that … the boat and its tenant convey but a faint idea of the action.’ For this critic, immediacy was achieved at the cost of legibility: the work may be appreciated as an ‘admirable sketch’, not a ‘finished picture’. Criticism of this sort was to haunt Turner throughout his career.

Both observation and imagination were crucial to picturing the sea in any meaningful way, a combination powerfully evident in Calais Pier (1803, pictured). This work, exceptionally dynamic both in style and in subject, presented a view of the sea that was emphatically personal. In 1802 the artist had taken advantage of a peace treaty between Britain and France to join a horde of tourists travelling across the English Channel. This was one of many seascapes that engaged with current affairs, and he displayed it with a title giving the exact location, insisting on his personal experience of the place and its specific political significance. Just a few days after the opening of the exhibition, however, the peace treaty was dissolved. For visitors to the Academy that year, the stormy seas might just as well have symbolised the renewed hostilities.

It is hard to know whether the association of Turner with marine painting prompted biographers to construct an image of the artist as an experienced seaman, but the conflation of Turner with life at sea quickly became commonplace after his death. He was said to have travelled by sea whenever possible, and obituaries and early biographies were filled with stories of his taste for sailing.

When Turner took part in his final exhibition, that of his own body in the gallery next to his house in Queen Anne Street, he was described in more than one obituary as a stout man with a highly coloured complexion, ‘somewhat sailor-like’.

This is an edited version of Philippa Simpson’s essay in Turner and the Sea, a book by Christine Riding and Richard Johns, published by Thames & Hudson to coincide with the exhibition. Turner and the Sea is at National Maritime Museum until 21 April 2014.

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