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Seeing Turner in the light of Claude

— April 2012

Associated media

JMW Turner, Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night, 1835 Oil on canvas 92.3 x 122.8 cm

‘Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude’ at London’s National Gallery inspires Rosa Somerville

This exhibition shows how Claude Lorrain (1600–82) influenced J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) throughout his career and how, even at the end of his life, Turner still thought of things in a Claudian sort of way. The other angle is the relationship of the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery over the thorny problem of one of the most ample but awkward artist’s bequests of the century, which provides some light entertainment perhaps for the visitor and a nightmare for the curator.  

The National Gallery has drawn on works from the Turner Bequest and British collections for this latest comparative exhibition. Ian Warrell is a sound helmsman and his essays and section introductions in the accompanying catalogue provide a solid commentary on the subject.   The essay on ‘The reception of Claude in early Nineteenth-Century London’ inevitably repeats well-known facts rather than being interpretative.

On entering the first room, if it is not too full, you should be struck by the wonderful ‘Altieri’ Claudes from Anglesey Abbey .  These were the very works that gave the young Turner the incentive to produce work that could be hung beside such old masters.  They look splendid here; rather better than in their somewhat cold environment in Cambridgeshire. The paintings that Turner had chosen, Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising through Vapour are shown alongside  The Embarkation of the Queen Sheba and The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca by  Claude Lorrain, as requested by the man who had – finally – achieved sufficient recognition to be taken seriously.

For those well acquainted with the artist and his master perhaps one of the treats will be to see the four works by Claude and Turner together without the irritating door spaces in the National Gallery’s normal hang. It is good to see the two Carthage paintings united and to  enjoy  the stunning   Keelmen Heaving Coals by Night (1835) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.  There are sketchbooks and a ‘colour beginning’ (study) and some unfinished works, which are there to show how Turner’s work differs from Claude’s ‘languid mood of elegiac pastoral’ while still producing ‘repeated demonstrations of his allegiance to Claude’s example’.

 The third catalogue essay, by Alan Crookham, the National Gallery’s Archivist,  is a good read.  While dealing with the not unfamiliar complexities of Turner’s will and how various curators and directors tried to overcome or fulfil its terms, he brings to our notice that in 1916 it was proposed that part of the Turner bequest could be sold off to help to rescue  Lord Ellesmere’s Titians – the very Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto that have recently been acquired for the Nation for a total of £95 million!  This idea was never realized.

One of the best things in the last room is a postcard from an irritated Mr Arnott, written in 1954, complaining that Dido Building Carthage ‘was not hanging next to Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba’ as he had expected.  Ten days later the National Gallery Keeper, Cecil Gould, replied with the excuse that the Turner was ‘very dirty’ and, more interestingly, that as Turner is ‘universally  acknowledged’ to be the equal of Claude therefore the ‘moral issue raised by the terms of Turner’s will is no longer in question’. There are also other documents that reveal something of the difficulties raised by Turner’s typically idiosyncratic final wishes (see Background info box).  The National Gallery and the Tate Gallery have wrestled with the problem over the years, but this exhibition seems to wish to show very publicly that harmony has broken out at last. Ian Warrell, is himself ‘on loan’ to the National Gallery from Tate Britain in order to curate the exhibition.

The Turner books in my library take up more than three feet of shelving.  Butlin and Joll, Wilton, Powell, Warrell etc.  Is there anything more to usefully add to this? The catalogue is handsome and generously illustrated;  but inevitably, the contents are not entirely new.

I am not sure that those who have more than three feet of Turner books in their library will necessarily want to add this book to their footage; but for those who don’t know Turner or Claude and might like to know more, this exhibition in particular and perhaps the catalogue, might be a revelation. Usefully, works by both artists are placed on the same spread of the latter so that they can be compared.  This new exhibition is at least a foot in the door of the life and work of the man who claimed to have been born on St George’s day, April 23, thus reinforcing his claim to be one of England’s greatest artists. Turner was not a shrinking violet, and this exhibition is proof of his ambition. 

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude  by Ian Warrell with contributions by Philippa Simpson, Alan Crookham and Nicola Moorby is published by Yale University Press, 2012. 144 pp., 100 colour illus, £25.00 (hardback). ISBN (hardback): 978 1 85709 537 1

Media credit: Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Widener Collection 1942.9.86


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