Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

What Turner Drank after a Day Sketching Carnage

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

What Turner Drank after a Day Sketching Carnage

Article excerpt

To those failing to honour resolutions to abstain this month, I have a message of cheer: "New Year, new you" is more of a myth than anything the ancient Greeks invented and probably of about the same vintage.

A century ago we were fighting the First World War. In 1815 the Napoleonic wars were dragging to their bloody conclusion after 12 and a half years. England may have welcomed 2015 without a major conflict thus far but there are plenty out there and I'm not counting any peacetime chickens just yet.

Instead, I'm drinking German wine and contemplating J M W Turner contemplating war.

Two years after Waterloo, the great painter visited the Belgian battlefield where the Brits, Prussians, Dutch and Belgians finally put paid to Napoleon's dreams of empire. The resulting painting, an unnerving clash between dark, roiling clouds and corpses illuminated by the torches of the bereaved, is no paean to victory.

"English troops in the Champs-Elysees!" crowed Turner's contemporary Benjamin Robert Haydon, who is portrayed in Mike Leigh's film Mr Turner as a bumptious and talentless fool: "There is something ... infinitely imposing, sublime and overwhelming in the present degraded state of France and Napoleon Bonaparte." Turner, more humanely, focused on war's sorrows. The only sublime element of his painting is the painting itself.

What does a thirsty man--which Turner was, by all accounts--drink after a day sketching carnage? Local ale, perhaps, but he toured Germany on this trip and it would have been polite, in any case, to raise a glass of Rhenish (Rhine) wine to the Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blucher, Wellington's ally at Waterloo.

What was it like, that early igth-century wine? Germany later lost vines (albeit fewer than France) to the dreaded phylloxera louse, so the plants that modern Rhine-dwellers tend are different; then there's climate change and improved vinification methods (but not machine harvesting, because many vineyards are too steep for any vehicle that isn't half goat). …

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