J.M. W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist

Article excerpt

J.M. W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist

Sam Smiles

Manchester University Press 2007

H/b, 240pp, 39 b&w ill

ISBN 9780719077081

In 2006-7, a small exhibition curated by Ian Warrell at Tare Britain, Norham Castle, Sunrise: From Incomprehension to Icon, highlighted the critical shift which had taken place in Turner studies over the course of 150 years. The unfinished oil painting Norham Castle: Sunrise (c1845) is now one of the artist's most famous and popular images, but, remained uncatalogued and forgotten for 50 years after Turner's death. Along with 20 other canvases, its hazy forms, luminous colours and unresolved details lay neglected in the basement of the National Gallery until 1906 when the picture was 'rediscovered' and displayed for the first time in the new Turner room at the Tate. This exhibition marked a change in public perception. Turner's late and unfinished paintings were no longer considered to be the unfortunate eccentricities of a declining Victorian master, and achieved a new retrospective status as essays in light and colour, validated by developments in modern art, particularly Impressionism. Sam Smiles's new book is a fascinating, in-depth account of that change.

Smiles reviews a century of Turner literature and exhibitions and demonstrates how the reputation of Britain's national artist evolved from 1860 to 1960 according to changing aesthetic tastes and ideologies. The story of Turner's posthumous reception begins with the artist's own aspirations concerning his legacy, and the complicated history of the Turner Bequest, that wonderful, cumbersome and unlooked-for gift, the result of a decision by the courts of Chancery which resulted in the contents of the artist's studio's being given to the nation. Initially shunted from pillar to post between institutions struggling to accommodate and care for it, the Bequest (now housed at Tare Britain) comprises over 37000 individually accessioned items. This vast range of oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and sketchbooks has always presented a unique challenge to critics and custodians alike and represents a key factor in Turner's dominance within British aesthetic consciousness. As any scholar of the artist will know, the sheer scale of this collection, as well as other readily accessible examples of Turner's work, has given rise over the years to an equally large and ever-growing body of art-historical interpretation. Smiles demonstrates, however, that although Turner's preeminence over the decades has remained constant, the nature of his profile has undergone several changes. For decades the debate has raged back and forth as to the nature of his genius.

One of the principle reasons for Turner's enduring reputation has been the adaptability of his art to shifting modern values. The main thrust of the argument is that developments in artistic practice such as Impressionism and, later, Abstraction were seen to vindicate elements in Turner's oeuvre that bad been formerly discounted. …