Turner’s Modern World at War

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-185

Tate Britain is home to the majority of J.M.Turner’s total output due to his bequest to the institution in 1851 .  Three hundred oil paintings and many thousands of watercolours and sketches, have, over the years,  either travelled to other galleries, been archived, or have featured in the Clore Gallery’s ever-changing displays.

Turner’s Modern World is Tate Britain’s latest Turner offering, a paid exhibition (for non-members) which focuses on the painter as keen observer of his time. 

Hoping that it would provide new insights into the artist and most importantly, bring up new work from the Tate Britain archive, I went along to the opening. 

It is easy to forget that young artists, like Turner, studying at the Royal Academy towards the end of the eighteenth century, would have been dissuaded from painting contemporary, political and societal subjects, in favour of Greek and Roman antiquity. 

For Turner, his was a fascinating era of great industrial change in Britain, propelled by wars that would last several decades. Visitors can refer to very useful historical timelines running along the wall of each room, detailing the great upheavals, good and bad, that were taking place at the end of the 18th century up to the first half of the 19th century.

 In a room of early work by Turner, I was drawn to a dim painting, Interior of a Cannon Foundry. Several workers are turning over a glowing orange ingot. I don’t think I have ever seen an interior painting by Turner so for that reason alone, it is worth running your eyes over as it is nicely painted. Watercolours of new canals and harbours however had me swiftly moving on to room 3 entitled War and Peace.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory 1806-8 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory 1806-8 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00480

In 1793, when Turner was eighteen, the French declared war on Britain. It must have had a profound effect on the young men of his generation, first of all evoking tremendous patriotic feeling in their breasts. Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar 1806-8 is a narrative tableau of what happened to the British Navy that day. We see it at the height of the battle but are also made aware of the successful outcome for the British by a certain detail. The French Tricolour is no longer flying and is laid across the deck of The Victory symbolising the French defeat. If you have very keen eyes, you will see smoke escaping from the musket of a French marksman positioned very high in the rigging of the French ship on the right. He has just taken a pot shot at Nelson. Turner interviewed the men very soon after the battle and his notes and sketches are on display at the exhibition. Well worth a look.

Patriotic feeling gives way to disillusionment in Turner’s Field of Waterloo in 1818. A field fills with dead infantry, dismantled cannons and dead horses. Most alarming is the sinister charcoal grey cloud ballooning up in the background. In this work we start to see Turner’s trademark dramatic sky. 

Room 6 was given over to Turner’s engagement in political reform and abolition of slavery. My eye was immediately drawn to Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming on. Though a well known work, this nightmarish reworking of a true event, was new to me. The red skies and sea filled with outstretched arms is painful to witness. When Turner produced this, the slave trade had long ceased. Although the work at the exhibition is a copy, the original having been too fragile to be shipped from Boston, it is a worthy inclusion in the show.

 The Northampton Election 6 December 1830 watercolour in the same room is uplifting in comparison, showing Whig MP Viscount Althorpe being carried out on a chair after his re-election to a jubilant crowd. 

Steam and Speed Room 7 housed some of Turner’s most famous works such as Fighting Teméraire. The Napoleonic wars were over when this was painted. An elegant fighting vessel is pulled along by a very functional steam-powered tug, to her final berth where she will be destroyed. A ghostly looking sailboat on the horizon signals the dwindling importance of war and the passing of an era. The calm waters and pale sunset all point to a return of peace.

My favourite paintings were waiting in the final room and signal Turner’s transformation into the ‘modern’ painter Ruskin championed. In the 1840s Turner not only experimented with vivid colour. Framing became important to him and he liked to pair similarly-themed works. 

In War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet 1842,  Napoleon is in exile. Framed by an angry crimson sky, he cuts a lonely figure contemplating his own reflection in a pool. The marshy land under his feet is painted in unnerving blood tones. To the right of the painting, destroyed cities appear through the mist. This work is a powerful critique of a military leader who was both admired and reviled during his lifetime and beyond.

Alongside this work, hangs Peace – Burial at Sea 1842. This is an equally striking work with the use of solid black paint to denote the funeral boat. A cool grey palette however creates an atmosphere of calm. Turner dedicated this work to fellow artist David Wilkie. In contrast to Napoleon’s shame, Wilkie’s death is presented as dignified. Was Turner meditating upon his own death when he painted this, for he had only nine years left of his long life to live (he died aged 77).

In all, a satisfying exhibition, with the inclusion of sufficient new works to keep you interested.


Turner’s Modern World at Tate Britain runs until Sunday 7th March 2021

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