CULTURE: Spotlight to Shine on Shakespeare of Art; Two Exhibitions Devoted to Britain's Greatest Painter, JMW Turner, Open in Birmingham This Autumn. Terry Grimley Meets the Curators and Offers a Guide to What's Where

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Byline: Terry Grimley

A utumn 2003 is the JMW Turner season, with no fewer than four exhibitions across the country devoted to England's greatest painter. There is one in London, one in Manchester and two, strange to say, in Birmingham -each exploring a different facet of this hugely prolific and diverse artist. First out of the blocks was Turner and Venice at Tate Britain, now followed by The Sun Rising Through Vapour: Turner's earlySeascapes, opening at Birmingham's Barber Institute tomorrow.

Still to come are Turner's Late Seascapes at Manchester Art Gallery and Turner's Britain at Birmingham's Gas Hall Gallery from November 7.

An additional complication is that both Turner's Britain and the Manchester show have been curated by James Hamilton, Turner biographer and curator of Birmingham University's art collection.

Confused? Inevitably some people will be.

'There are bound to be people coming here to see James' exhibition and there are so many people who think we're already open,' says Paul Spencer-Longhurst, curator of The Sun Rising Through Vapour. 'It's interesting how these misunderstandings get around.'

Why so much Turner activity in 2003, a year that has no obvious anniversary connections with the artist?

The answer is that the first stirrings of the Birmingham exhibitions go back as far as 1997/98. More than almost any other artist, Turner's major works are largely concentrated in one public collection, so the Tate's involvement as a lender was crucial. But it turned out that a large number of overseas loans had already been agreed for 2001, the 150th anniversary of the artist's death. Hence the delaying of these exhibitions until 2003.

'The Barber show is essentially a picture-in-focus exhibition built around our painting The Sun Rising Through Vapour,' explains Paul Spencer-Longhurst. 'It was raising its head to be done after Gainsborough and Rossetti.'

James Hamilton adds: 'The spaces were given. The Barber is a small space, whereas the Gas Hall can only take a large show, so it had to be something that was expansive and celebratory. The Barber was doing the sea, so we took the land and came up with the idea of Turner's Britain.'

The latest in a series of exhibitions that put paintings from its permanent collection into perspective, the Barber Institute's show is built around its Turner of 1809, The Sun Rising Through Vapour. 'One reason for doing it is that a number of people have mentionedhow underexposed our Turner has been,' says Spencer-Longhurst.

'I think that's true because it was in a private collection for so long. It has the same title as a larger and more famous picture in the National Gallery. One of the ideas behind the exhibition is to get those two paintings together -as far as I'm aware, for the first time.'

Although small, with about 25 exhibits in all, the exhibition is international in scope. The Portrait of the Victory in Three Positions, from the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, is the star transatlantic guest.

'That's one picture I'm thrilled is coming,' says Spencer-Longhurst. 'You can't ask for too many things because if you do they end up lending fewer than you ask for and they're not the ones you would have chosen.'

As with previous exhibitions in this series, devoted to paintings by Stom, Rossetti and van Dyck, there are also works by other artists, including Turner's contemporaries and the Dutch marine artist, Willem van de Velde the Younger, who was a major influence on his seascapes. …