There is no better story than that of triumph over adversity, and little can engender public adoration more effectively than an unlikely hero.
JMW Turner, the gifted son of a barber who became a towering force in the art world, fits this bill to a tee, and since his death in 1851 his place in the British public’s heart has grown enormously.
If Turner’s rags-to-riches story wasn’t fairytale-like enough already, then his legacy is sealed with the fall from grace he experienced during his old age when his experiments while at the height of his fame failed to win over critics. He became a publicly derided figure, seen as old and senile. Even patrons as notable as John Ruskin questioned his mental state.
Of course, since then, the expressive whorls of colour and light of Turner’s later paintings have been recognised as belonging to an artistic narrative that spawned impressionism and a plethora of other movements which continue to inform art today.
The last big Turner exhibition in the Tate in 2010 placed Turner’s canvases alongside those of masters such as Titian, Rubens, Canaletto and contemporaries such as Constable – those Turner admired and who served as red rags to his ambition and his competitive spirit. We saw Turner as a fighter and as an artist of his time.
But now we see the extraordinary climax of a life spent completely immersed in art. The Tate’s exhibition, Late Turner: Painting set Free, which opens today, is an in-depth tour of the last decades of Turner’s life.
What we see is the output of a visionary unbothered about denting his reputation. The enormity of the exhibition is warranted by the enormity of Turner’s ambition. Every broad brushstroke and impastoed splatter materialises in positive defiance of Turner’s detractors.
Featuring the Tate gallery’s own extensive Turner collection alongside scores of others from across the globe, this is a big show. Six rooms are devoted to showcasing Turner’s large-scale oils, and his incredible output of watercolours.
The structure of the show is highly engaging. We have pairs of paintings re-united, as Turner wanted them exhibited. From the Tate’s own collection, Ancient Rome, Agrippina landing with the Ashes of Germanicus is placed alongside its sister painting Modern Rome, Campo Vaccino, which is on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
In addition, there are works from contemporaries that give insight into Turner’s position in the London art world. From his tutelage of Daniel Maclise, and Maclise’s vast work Noah’s Sacrifice, to the tiny portrait of Turner himself, by William Parrott, in which Turner is depicted as a stout aged fellow, top hat on his head and four or five brushes in his hand, working on one of his pictures on varnishing day in the Royal Academy. These examples bring Turner to life, humanise him, and engender sympathy and respect for the old boy.
It is an exhibition of fireworks, but amid the spectacle there is an almost fully realised vision of the future. The party-pops of his vibrant water-colours wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Fauve exhibition half a century later. Some are as small as postcards, with pastel pinks and blues placed alongside searing reds, other have dabs and scratches that hint at pointillism. The worry is that in an exhibition of this stature you may find it hard to break through the (inevitable) crowds and get up-close to see how clever he is being.
At the other end of the scale is the beautiful conflagration of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834. Turner was one of the thousands that lined the riverbank to watch the cradle of democracy go up in flames. His response, a year after the incident, was to create an utterly modern painting. Huge roaring fire, giddy crowds, and Westminster Bridge, lit by gas-lanterns, looms up beneath an eerie blue starry sky.
The antithesis is the final room – Turner at the end of his life. The diffuse light of the canvases glows from the walls, each one packed like a charged battery with the sheer virtuosity on display. There are the rough seas of the south coast – Turner’s beloved Margate, whaling scenes, storm-stricken skies, and each one a showcase for the visceral application of paint, but also the delicate detailing of intricacies such as a ship’s rigging, or the precise atmosphere of a sea mist.
This exhibition is electrified by Turner’s energy and his obvious possession to paint and to create. And it is glorious.