Magazine article The Spectator

The Drama of Light

Magazine article The Spectator

The Drama of Light

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

Turner: The Great Watercolours (Royal Academy, till 18 February 2001)

J.M.W. Turner died worth L140,000 -- the equivalent in today's money, according to Evelyn Joll, doyen of Turner scholars, to perhaps L4 million. In other words, he became as rich in relative terms as an art star of the 21st century - which is one in the eye for those who believe that it is only recently that the art world has become money-oriented, and not bad for a barber's son from Covent Garden. It is a useful fact to bear in mind while contemplating the current exhibition in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy.

The point of this show is that it is made up entirely of Turner's 'finished' watercolours, that is, those that were made on commission for clients, or would have been thought suitable for public exhibition. Personally, I think the word 'great' is a bit tendentious to distinguish these from the even more numerous - and looser, freer - studies and colour notes which he also painted in watercolour. I tend to prefer the latter, though it's quite likely that Turner himself would have thought otherwise.

There's the rub. We don't really know what Turner thought about his art, in his heart of hearts. Generally speaking, you might think that the more 'finished' a work the better it reflects the artist's intentions. But artist's intentions are slippery things, especially in the case of certain 19th- and early 20th-century painters. Were the wilder of Monet's last waterlily pictures 'studies' or 'sketches'? Or did he just feel like painting that way, and also feel that, as a wealthy and elderly man, he could indulge that impulse.

Similarly, looking at Turner's watercolour studies and last 'unfinished' oils -- `Norham Castle: Sunrise', for example -- one suspects that he simply wanted to paint like that. And, like the loosest late Monets, those are the pictures that most anticipate the abstract art of the mid-20th century. (There were other similarities between Turner and Monet, both of whom became obsessed with capturing what Monet called the 'enveloppe' - not solid objects, but the quivering capsule of light and air around them.)

But Turner didn't begin in such a luxurious position, In the 1790s, where this exhibition more or less begins, he was a rising young man on the make, exploiting the enormous domestic market for topographical watercolours. From the clients' point of view, the advantages of watercolours were perhaps mainly economic: they were cheaper and quicker to produce than oils, and could be readily run up in sets, say of different parts of one's estate.

Artistically, the strength of the medium was different. Malcolm Morley, a contemporary exponent of both media, has pointed out that oil paint wants to be opaque, while watercolour wants to be transparent. Consequently, watercolour, especially when floated over white paper, lends itself to the depiction of such things as veils of light in moist air, or reflected on water. And it is not the best medium for emphasising the solidity of solid things such as bricks and mortar, hills and trees.

The early Turner watercolours in this show demonstrate the point. Although they are virtuoso performances of their kind, such pieces as the `Welsh Bridge at Shrewsbury' (c. 1794), and `Wolverhampton, Staffordshire' (c. 1796) are a little dry -though it is interesting to note how much nicer the centre of Wolverhampton was 200 years ago. …

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