Joseph Mallord William Turner: it’s a name that we all know and love. But can there really be another blockbuster exhibition that shows his work in a genuinely new light?
Sadly the answer is: not really. Turner’s Modern World aims to consider Turner as a modern artist in the way he depicts the world around him. Looking at how the modernising world affected the development of his painting is not exactly novel, but it makes a welcome change to looking at Turner from a pre-Impressionistic, ‘painter of the natural world’ point of view.
And that’s all that blockbuster exhibitions ever really do – they try and find a new angle to talk about artworks that have been displayed time and time again. But don’t get me wrong! The Tate Britain exhibition is a visual feast that brings together Turner’s works in a chronological, coherent way, and I really enjoyed watching it. This review sums up all the best bits of the exhibition, and as always, my thoughts!
Side note: Even though the Tate Britain is closed, I was lucky enough to see a ‘virtual private view’ of this exhibition – if you would like too see private views and virtual tours in the future, sign up for a Tate Membership via the website.
“He lived through a very turbulent time: from the Napoleonic wars, to booming industrial growth, to the abolition of slavery”
Room 1 – Introduction
The virtual exhibition begins with sweeping panoramas of classical golden picture frames, which look striking against the midnight green wall colour. The exhibition was filmed and overlaid with art-gallery-esque music and some really interesting commentaries; it had all the information of an audio guide, just without the headphones.
As you might expect from a chronological exhibition, it began with Turner’s sketches from his early years as an artist. ‘The Hero of A Hundred Fights’ shows the interior of an iron foundry which is almost biblical in its representation – the composition and use of colour brings William Blake to mind. The watercolour represents industry and war, which were the dominating themes of the era, his work, and the exhibition.
Although Turner lived through a very turbulent time, he is often seen as a neutral landscape painter. The exhibition argues that Turner was actually very astute in responding to everything around him. His work is undoubtedly a product of the period in which it was made, making him what we call a ‘modern painter’.
“For a Turner newbie, these artworks come as a bit of a surprise”
Room 2 – Signs of the Time: Early Work
The second room is dedicated to Turner’s topographical watercolours that illustrated real events in the changing British landscape. For a Turner newbie, these artworks come as a bit of a surprise. There are some extremely detailed real life scenes which are a far cry from Turner’s later, iconic style.
Detailed figures, bustling street scenes, intricate architecture: the artist trained with an architectural draftsman as a teenager, which is evident in his accurate depiction of buildings and interiors.
One of the most surprising paintings in this room is ‘Interior of a Canon Foundry’. The artistic skill in this initially unexciting painting is exceptional. The white hot metal in the centre of the composition looks as though it would be hot to the touch (this effect was created by leaving the paper painstakingly untouched). To replicate the effect of splashing water for the water wheel in the background, Turner removed flecks of pigment, talking it back to the colour of the paper using a pin or blade edge.
“For Turner, the war was a way to prove himself as a painter of modern history”
Room 3 – War and Peace
The berry red walls of the third room are initially imposing, but they work to elevate the drama of the room to its lofty status of War and Peace.
Turner was particularly interested in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars which continued throughout most of his lifetime. He is known for heroic battle scene paintings, such as ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’, but it is the ‘The Field of Waterloo’ that caught my attention.
In a post-battle landscape, piles of dead soldiers lay beneath a dramatic starlit sky. It was an extremely unusual representation of war for the time, and a true diversion from his other works on the same topic. The virtual exhibition narrator described the work as “a critical commentary on the real cost of warfare”.
“For me, this room was a slightly space-filling inclusion”
Room 4 – Modern Thought
For me, this room was a slightly space-filling inclusion, like the curators had run out of related ideas for the room.
Turner illustrated books for his literary friends, including Walter Scott and Thomas Campbell, which were minutely detailed and painstakingly precise. This particular work, ‘The Wreck’ from 1836 was drawn by Turner and engraved by Henry Griffiths. Griffiths turned the paper illustration into a complex series of lines and patterns which were engraved onto a hard surface, covered in ink, and printed onto paper.
These illustrative prints make an odd addition to an exhibition that attempts to re-think Turner’s oeuvre. As beautiful and as intricate as they are, I don’t think they add much to the reinterpretation of his work as a depiction of the ‘modern world’.
“Windsor castle is an ominous and looming reminder of power and wealth, not patriotism”
Room 5 – Home Front
The deep olive green walls of Room 5 compliment Turner’s scenes of nature and landscape.
This room is primarily about what was going on in Britain domestically, during and after the Napoleonic wars.
The painting ‘Ploughing up Turnips near Slough (Windsor)’ shows exactly this. The narrator of this room describes the painting as “somewhat patriotic” because it shows Windsor castle in the background. The work can also be interpreted as showing the progression of agriculture: from sowing seeds by hand, to the introduction of the plough, to the white smoke floating across the middle-ground to hint towards encroaching industry.
Personally I don’t see this as a patriotic painting. Windsor castle is an ominous, looming reminder of power and wealth – watching over the hardworking peasants as a reminder of who’s boss – not patriotism.
“Turner the artist and Turner the man were different creatures”
Room 6 – Causes and Campaigns
The early years of the nineteenth century saw massive social changes: booming industrial growth, social demands for political reform, Catholic emancipation, the independence of Greece, and the abolition of slavery. Turner illustrated many of these events, and in a way, this room sums up the whole exhibition.
An evocative painting from 1840, Turner’s ‘Slave Ship’ was made to shock and distress. It’s almost as if the sea itself has caught fire from the horror of the scene – the raging ocean batters the ship as slavers throw the dead and dying overboard (and would go on to claim financial compensation for their ‘losses’).
Despite such a passionate and furious painting, Turner himself invested in slavery in a Jamaican cattle pen worked upon by enslaved Africans. According to the narrator of Room 6, by the 1820s he had a change of heart and became a firm supporter of abolition. Cool.
“…the swirling brushwork, the natural pallet, the hint of industry”
Room 7 – Speed and Steam
As you can probably guess from the title of the room, this space was dedicated to Turner’s paintings of boats and trains, and their relationship to ever-developing industry.
‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’ is one of Turner’s most iconic works: the swirling brushwork, the natural pallet, the hint of industry… the painting is an insight into the period and a visual representation of one age moving into another. This work also epitomises what Turner does best: showing movement, speed, and weather in a static oil painting.
This room also holds a pair of stunning gouache paintings from 1832, entitled ‘Le Havre Tour de Francois, 1ER‘. Again, the artworks show an elegant contrast between sail and steam ships.
“This room shows how Turner’s style finally caught up with his subject matter”
Room 8 – Modern Painter
It was Turner’s great admirer, John Ruskin, who first called him ‘modern painter’. According to Ruskin, Turner was a modern painter due to his unrivalled ability to observe and paint nature.
This room summaries how the artist’s modern subjects were painted in a completely modern way.
The exhibitions ends with a beautiful pair of contrasting paintings depicting war and peace: ‘War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet’, 1842, and ‘Peace – Burial at Sea’, 1842.
So, Turner’s Modern Word: can it really be considered as an exciting new perspective on his work and life? I’m not so sure. I feel like it’s been done: there are only so many ways to rethink one of the nation’s favourite artists. But there’s nothing wrong with trying, and a Turner exhibition will always get people through the door (or onto the website…).
All the same, I really appreciate the effort that Tate Britain went to, not only to put on the exhibition, but to digitalise it too. It’s nice to see exhibitions of well-known and well-loved paintings when you haven’t been to a gallery since March 2020.
Hopefully when the exhibition finishes, everyone will be able to enjoy the virtual tour online and for free. Or even better – in real life!