Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Splash

Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Splash

Article excerpt

Turner & the Sea National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 21 April 2014

Turner's contemporaries regarded him primarily as a marine painter. This perception extended to his persona, with many who met him commenting on his nautical gait, manner of speaking and other salty characteristics.

He frequented ports and coastal parts, relished sailing in storms, was immune to seasickness and famously had himself lashed to the mast to experience the full force of the gale before painting one of his most controversially 'indistinct' canvases 'Snow Storm'.

One witness recorded that he 'somewhat resembled the master of a merchantman', his first biographer described him as 'half a sailor', and he ended his days in unwedded bliss on the Thames in Chelsea with his longterm mistress, a seaman's widow, Mrs Booth, where he himself was known to the neighbours as 'Admiral Booth'.

More than half of Turner's pictures were of the sea, yet there has never been a major exhibition devoted to this theme.Turner & the Sea presents as never before the full gamut of the artist's marine pictures, from the first oil he exhibited, 'Fishermen at Sea' (1796), and the first of his works to be engraved and published (in 1807), 'The Shipwreck', to 'The Fighting Temeraire' (1839) and 'The Wreck Buoy' (painted in 1807 and reworked in 1849).

By choosing this theme that is central to Turner's entire career, Christine Riding, who spent five years researching the project, and her co-curator Richard Johns are able to present in a consistently illuminating fashion every important phase of the artist's development, telling us much about his personality, motivation and the historical background. The panels and captions in the show are admirably compact yet informative, and those who want to learn more can turn to the splendidly illustrated and eminently readable catalogue.

The exhibition opens with the first of a series of striking juxtapositions that punctuate the show: three large canvases of stormtossed seas, 'The Wreck of a Transport Ship', 'Calais Pier' and 'The Shipwreck', all painted in the first decade of the 19th century. In this same period, Turner opened his own gallery - with advanced top-lighting, diffused by a stretched herring net lined with tissue paper - attached to his house in Harley Street.

The following section, 'Charted Waters', displays sea artists that inspired the young Turner when he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1789, notably the 17th-century Dutchman Willem van de Velde the Younger and the 18th-century Frenchman Claude Joseph Vernet. …

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