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Turner and the Masters


JMW Turner

Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth

exh. RA



Tate Britain


23 September 2009 – 31 January 2010









A review by Barry Grantham for EXTRA! EXTRA!


The editor of Extra! Extra!, Mary Couzens, my boss as it were, said to me (joking you understand) that even if I did get to the press reception,  Mr Turner, the artist himself, was unlikely to be there in person.  This is a pity for I’m sure he would have proved a very informative and enlightening guide.  That he was very articulate on the art he practiced is shown by some of his sayings quoted at the exhibition. Although he was immensely ambitious he could be both modest and generous in his comments on other painters:

On Girtin:    “If Girtin had lived.. I should have starved” 
On Titian:    “The highest honour that landscape has yet, she received from
On Watteau: “I learnt more from him than any other painter” 
On Cuyp:      “I would give a thousand pounds to have painted like that “
On Rembrandt’s ‘Holy Family’:  “He has thrown that veil of matchless colour, that lucid interval of Morning dawn and dewy light on which the Eye dwells so completely enthralled, and seeks not its liberty.”
On Claude: “Pure as Italian air, calm, beautiful and serene springs forward the works and with them the name of Claude Lorrain

Having made such comments he would then go to any lengths to try to outdo them, be they masters of the past or current rivals.   It was apparently quite a convention of the time for a patron who owned, say, a Rembrandt, to commission a companion painting by a contemporary artist of the same view or subject and in comparable dimensions, and Turner received a number of such orders. Even without a patron, Turner would be tempted to make a version of any landscape that was held in public esteem, hoping to prove that he could not only equal the original but surpass it. It is the juxtaposition of the original with the Turner version which provides the main raison d’être of the exhibition.  The Turners are not copies, but recreations; clusters of trees or ships at sea are flipped horizontally, colours are changed, and details intentionally modified. When finding inspiration from an old master, his treatment tends to be more of an affectionate tribute, (and no one would suggest that Turner could equal Rembrandt) but when reproducing a living or near contemporary he gives no quarter, and then it is largely a matter of personal taste whether one prefers the original or its derivative.

I have some difficulty with Turner, perhaps because I am of an age that first knew his work through some centuries of thick varnish, which turned his warm and vibrant colours into sombre browns, and lumped him in my schoolboy mind with all such tedious works of art to be found in a dusty provincial art gallery, and I still find the odd picture like ‘ Boccaccio Relating the Tale of the Bird-Cage’ most unpleasing and standing between Claude’s  ‘Seaport at Sunset’1639  and Turner’s ‘Regulus’, 1828 it is the cool blues of the earlier work on which my eye wishes to rest   In other comparisons Turner’s vast canvas of ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ 1823  wins over Loutherbourg’s ‘Glorious First of June’,1795. for its quality of showing both the tragedy and the heroism of war at sea.  And I can fully appreciate anothertruly stupendous work ‘Rome from the Vatican’ depicting  the painter Raphael, backed by a glittering sun-drenched view of the city.  There are few portraits, but that of the fictional ‘Jessica’, 1830 from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice burns on the retina an unforgettable image.  My two quite unjustifiably favourite pictures are; an early watercolour ‘The Transept of Ewenny Priory, Glamorganshire’, 1797  (Had Turner died young like Girtin he would still rank among the great British water-colourists)   and the sublime impressionistic  ‘Calais Sands, Low water, Poissards Collecting Bait’ 1830.

This is a serious and important exhibition, perhaps directed more towards the enjoyment and further enlightenment of devotees rather than to popularize and introduce Turner to an unfamiliar public.  The exhibition has been conceived by David Solkin, Professor of Social History of Art at the Courtauld Institute. For the would-be connoisseur there is a splendid book to augment the exhibition      



Turner and the Masters

23 September 2009 – 31 January 2010

At Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries, Millbank, London,
Admission: £12.50 (£10.50 consessions)

Open every day 10.00 -17.50. and until 22.00 on the first Friday of the month

For information: or call 020 7887 8888




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