Atmospherics, visions and hallucinations. A pathological obsession with light. Turner’s paintings, while both beautiful, and ahead of their time, are still considered to be the black sheep of their time. Their unorthodox nature may have overshadowed his goal of bringing landscape painting to a level of esteem on par with the grand history painting of his idol, Nicholas Poussin. Yet this was a man who should be celebrated for not only finding a unique vision of the world, but relentlessly exploring new ways to depict it.
”Turner was one of the artists who had the run of the third earl of Egremont’s extraordinary home, art collection and parkland at Petworth, a mansion in west Sussex now owned by the National Trust and holding its largest art collection. In a house where Van Dycks and Holbeins vied for space with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the visiting painters were not only wined and dined but could take Rembrandts off the wall and have them brought to their own rooms. When Egremont liked an artist, he commissioned on a Medici scale, and Turner was handsomely paid for paintings including luminous views of the park outside the windows.” ( Maev Kennedy, Guardian )
For eight years, until Lord Egremont’s death, Joseph Mallord William Turner was a regular visitor at his estate at Petworth, and the paintings and sketches he did there, most of which were not exhibited during his lifetime and were unknown even to the collectors most interested in his work, are at once the most evocative and the most maddeningly unspecific records of Turner’s oddly complex and hidden spirit. There is in the first place the significant coincidence of the death of Turner’s father and the beginning of the Petworth experience. The rough old man had been his steady companion for thirty years; whatever he had supplied in the way of an emotional center for his son’s life must somehow have been transmuted to the unexpected quarter of Petworth, whose master was a connosieur and collector.
”At a time when there were no public art galleries, access to collections like Petworth was particularly precious for artists – but Ian Warrell, the Tate’s Turner expert and co-curator of the exhibition, sees a yearning for a lost Arcadia in Turner’s many intimate watercolour sketches of the house. He wonders if more than love of art was celebrated there.
The works feature an extraordinary number of bedroom scenes, with barely discernible figures in tumbles of sheets. Turner never married, but had mistresses, including the landlady of his Margate lodging house, and is thought to have had at least two unacknowledged children. Egremont did marry, but had no legitimate heir among his reputed 42 illegitimate children: they say the Wyndham nose can still be spotted in the streets of the town.”
The Petworth pictures represent Turner’s first complete release into pure color as a field of light; in them he also becomes the technician who approximated pure abstraction in his treatment of paint simply as paint. But in every other way the Petworth pictures contrast with the rest of his work. Many are interiors, for one thing; great halls or intimate corners of bedrooms sometimes recognizable as rooms at Petworth but often as fantasies derived from them. The mood is warm and vibrant rather than violent, and most exceptional of all, the scenes are dominated by the presence of human life. The human figures, it is true, dissolve into light along with architectural motifs and furniture, all consumed in yellows, oranges and vermillions like live coals but without the violence of fire. Yet they are at home.
When Egremont died, Turner was sixty-two, and the year 1837, marked the end of what must have been the happiest period of his life. The last oil painting he did there, ”Interior at Petworth”, is of a vast imaginary hall, shattered and melting in golden light, and filled with the breath of spirits; an apotheosis and a farewel
In 1828 Turner had made a second Italian visit; he made others, including at least two more to Venice. His big house and gallery on Queen Anne Street had acquired a housekeeper named Hannah Danby, a niece of Sarah’s.One is left wondering, whether, or how, or when, Turner saw his daughters, or anyone else connected with his early affair with Sarah.
Hannah, a woman of notoriously repellant aspect, succeeded Turner’s father as general factotum in the increasingly neglected house. It was frequently difficult for visitors to gain admission to the gallery, and Turner dispensed even with the small amenities he and his father had enjoyed. Two years after the death of Egremont, he took a cottage at the corner of Cremorne Road and Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where he spent most of his time incognito. When he died there on December 19,1851, the neighbors still knew him only as Admiral Booth, a retired officer who had taken to drink, and knew the woman he lived with as Mrs. Booth.
We have already commented that the “dissolution of the forms” present in Turner’s last works was interpreted by numerous critics as the beginning of a dementia. Even Ruskin himself was quite disturbed by these works by Turner, who was sometimes forced to place nails in the frames to indicate the top and the bottom part of the canvas.
”The landscapes may change, but the feeling behind each is the same. Turner’s scenes always have a surreal quality to them, where brooding clouds “(The Tenth Plague of Egypt”) and crashing waves (“Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen” ) are dominating characters that are awe inspiring in relation to the tiny figures of men before them. These pictures eschew Turner’s Romantic sensibilities. Like many other of his fellow painters and writers in Britain at the time, Turner cherished the bucolic qualities of the English landscape,which stood to be tarnished in the approaching age of Industrialism. Turning towards the writings of Edmund Burke, Turner sought out the sublime power of nature and its ability to evoke, as the Met quotes, the “strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
While such artistic values may succeed in depicting compelling landscapes, they do not translate as well in other types of scenes. Take Turner’s attempt at history painting, with works like “The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory.” The figures in this painting lack any sort of individuality or human emotion. Instead of a dramatic myth, Turner gives us a sensory filled reenactment of the battle-depicting the foggy haze of sea mist and gunfire and the tangled confusion of ships battling at such close range. This may be a realistic recreation, but for such an important moment in British history, its specificity detracts from its legend. The same could be said of “The Field of Waterloo.” Turner eerily creates the fire and brimstone that rages on in the distance, but pays little attention to the pathos of the suffering figures in the foreground.”