Turner the Visionary
Turner’s conviction that painting should depict an ideal beauty was matched by his perception of the coming of the industrial world. Could this explain why public demand to view his works – evidenced by this month’s opening of Margate’s Turner Contemporary – has never declined?
Eric Shanes, Friday, 1st April 2011
Across a vast lake surrounded by huge, gleaming mountains a heavy storm has moved off in the distance, leaving in its wake an atmosphere brimming with moisture and a world beginning to steam in the brilliant dawn sunshine (Fig. 1). Near to us, a group of travellers who have been drenched by the storm are alighting from a small ferry, their belongings and cargo strewn across the beach. A girl on the right sniffles into her hand-kerchief, possibly crying over the spilt milk that lies before her but more probably because her recent, chillingly damp experience has brought on a head cold. Further away, more boats approach; near the very tip of the distant headland to the right, there can just be made out the chapel dedicated to the memory of the Swiss fighter for liberty, William Tell.
Such is the freshness of the image that one might be forgiven for thinking that it was made on the spot. But that was certainly not the case – instead, it was conjured forth from a very slight pencil drawing once made by the lakeside, from an amalgam of memories, from observations not necessarily gleaned at this place and from a prodigious imagination. Lake of Lucerne, from the landing place at Fluelen was created in the winter of 1808–09, when Turner was 33 years of age, and thus some six years after the artist had last set foot in Switzerland. He elaborated the work in the medium of watercolour, a vehicle that, prior to its use by artists such as Paul Sandby, John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin and Turner himself, had usually been employed merely to communicate the dry facts of place. Nonetheless, because of the relatively large size of the drawing, plus its combination of spatial breadth, intricate detail and wide tonal range, at superficial glance it could easily be mistaken for an oil painting. The gold matt and ornate gold frame that today enclose the watercolour would seem to encourage such misapprehension, and it is highly likely that when Turner first framed the work he did so in an identical fashion (if indeed the current matt and frame are not in fact his originals). Turner certainly intended to blur the distinction between watercolour and oil painting in this drawing, if only through his employment of the kind of tonal density and range that was commonly encountered in oils by 1808–09 but less frequently in watercolours – in water- colours, that is, by artists other than himself.
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