Turner and the Sea

JMW Turner Keelmen heaving in Coal by MoonlightMoonlight

Given that Joseph Mallord William Turner is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of the sea in the history of British art, it seems slightly strange that Turner and the Sea – just opened at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – is the first full-scale exhibition devoted to this aspect of his work. Then again, the sea forms such an integral part of his oeuvre that, in a sense, it goes without saying. Any exhibition of Turner is always going to be, at least to some extent, also an examination of Turner and the sea.

So what new insights does Turner and the Sea bring to its vast subject matter? Well, in some senses, none, but then that need be no bad thing. This is a classic exploration of an indisputably great painter, that isn’t seeking to provide some kind of revisionist reinterpretation or radical new angle. It’s a very different strategy for curator Christine Riding, previously of the Tate, whose last major exhibition – Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern – was criticised for taking a thematic approach that may have appealed to other curators but made things difficult for the general public (for whom so many critics often claim to speak).

Any exhibition of Turner is always going to be
an examination of Turner and the sea.

Rather, this exhibition charts a clear career progression from the first painting Turner ever exhibited (the expertly composed and deftly executed Fishermen at Sea, 1796) right through to the bewilderingly experimental works of the 1840s and even some of the unfinished pieces that formed part of the controversially handled Turner Bequest. In between, we’re given a solid grounding in the historical traditions of marine painting, an introduction to contemporary artistic rivalries, and an insight into Turner’s prolific production of sketches, watercolours and prints: all of which fed into the artist’s increasingly radical approach to painting and the sea.

Turner and the Sea, JMW Turner Whalers (also known as The Whale Ship)

Many major works are here, all lined up present and correct: the sad grandeur of The Fighting Temeraire (1838, usually free to view at the National Gallery); the magisterial Keelmen Heaving in Coals By Moonlight (1835, my personal highlight of last year’s Turner Inspired, also at the National); A Wreck with Fishing Boats (1840-5); and Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael (1844). With these few works alone, you could spend a pensive hour.

What the exhibition does well is to place Turner
in the rich context of marine painting.

But what Turner and the Sea also does well is to place these in the rich context of marine painting. So alongside all the Turners are works by Gainsborough, van de Velde, Backhuysen and Verdet, as well as contemporaries such as Bonnington, Reinagle, Danby, and Constable. Some offer something to learn from, some to react against. This kind of historicising is surprisingly difficult to balance, but Turner and the Sea gets it spot on. There’s an especially nice moment where Turner’s vast The Battle of Trafalgar (1822) faces off against a pair of Nichoals Pococks. Where Pocock takes an elevated perspective that makes the battle seem like little more than a tactical wargame, Turner goes for an overblown, figure-filled melodrama. Neither, it must be said, is an unmitigated success.

Turner and the Sea, Snow Storm - Steam Boat off Harbour's mouth

What’s also of interest is the sensitivity of Turner’s response to place: something especially in evidence in some of the etchings and mezzotints published in the Libor Studiorum as well as several of the small-scale watercolours. These range from the rugged Coast of Yorkshire (1811) via the ghostly precarity of Dunwich (1830) and Margate from the Sea, Whiting Fishing (1822) with its softly dazzling interplay between sea and sky.

Also of interest is the sensitivity
of Turner’s response to place.

Meanwhile, an innovative approach to displaying some of Turner’s many thousands of sketches and watercolours yields many gems. The evidence of an experimental mind at work is clear from his increasingly direct engagement with both medium and subject matter: immersing paper in water, smearing paint with fingers, flicking it onto the surface of the work. In particular, the watercolour and bodycolour of Ship at Sea (1830-5) stands out, as do a selection of chalk and watercolour works from the Whales Sketchbook (1845) – scribbled with fire and hieroglyphic scrawl; black boats like the briefest of sentences.

All of this collides with a bang in the final room. A host of late-era masterpieces are crammed into the space: the extraordinary swirling vortex that is Snow Storm – Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842); The Whale Ship (1845) – whose black mass of whale and bloodied spray seems like an attack on the sea itself; and, strangely, Seascape with Distant Coast (c1840), a bold choice to end on for so many reasons. Not only is it unfinished (although the wall text notes that our definitions of ‘finished’ involve presentation and viewer expectation as much as artistic intention) but there are problems over its dating and even questions around its authenticity. Staring into its dense, swirling, unattributed blankness, it becomes clear how little we can know – not only about Turner but also about the sea, and art, and so much more besides.


Turner and the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum, London until 21st April 2014.


Image credits, top to bottom:
Keelmen Heaving in Coal by Moonlight, © National gallery of Art, Washington
Whalers (also known as The Whale Ship), © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, © Tate


The Learned Pig

More from Tom Jeffreys
If writing is an act of preservation, it is a flawed one....
Read More