by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, London
Rain, Steam and Speed by JMW Turner, 1844

Seeing in the New Age

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 December 2020


'He has made a picture with real rain, behind which is real sunshine, and you expect a rainbow any minute. Meanwhile, there comes a train down upon you, really moving at a rate of fifty miles an hour,' wrote Thackeray of Turner's 'Rain, Steam, and Speed' when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844, concluding: 'The world has never seen anything like this picture.'

Few artists at that time would have considered a speeding steam train to be a suitable subject for Fine Art and many of Turner's fellow painters and writers with more traditional views of beauty were hostile to the new technologies transforming the face of Britain. Among them was William Wordsworth who, in the same year, published a verse polemic against the proposed Kendal & Windermere Railway. Curiously the poet's wording suggests that his horror at the prospect of steam trains (and proletarian visitors) invading his lakeland paradise had been heightened by seeing Turner's picture at the RA.

But Turner stood apart from every other artist of his age in his continual engagement with every aspect of the times he lived through, from industrial and technological innovations to modern warfare and political and social upheavals. That this life-long engagement not only affected Turner's choice of subjects but also had a profound influence on the way the artist confronted the challenges of painting them is now brilliantly illustrated by 'Turner's Modern World', curated by David Blayney Brown, Amy Concannon and Sam Smiles, at Tate Britain.

While the Royal Academy Schools equipped Turner, a precocious student, with a mastery of the technical skills required of a professional artist, it was only during his extensive travels in the 1790s as a topographical draughtsman and watercolourist that the 'wonderful range of mind' that Constable later paid tribute to was given space to develop. Turner was attracted to the dramatic possibilities of such scenes as moonlit canals and nocturnal views of fiery furnaces. His first commission for an industrial subject was of the Cyfarthfa iron-smelting works at Merthyr Tydfil, once the largest in the world and famous for its cannons. He also displayed a remarkable ability imaginatively to synthesize disparate elements, as in his 'Shipwreck on a Rocky Coastline with a Ruined Castle' (1792-93), in which he managed to transform the outlines of the Coalbrookdale iron works into a picturesque village clinging to a crag.

Even from these early days his grandest and most panoramic landscapes were seldom devoid of some telling human presence, typically of humble folk - his own working-class upbringing in Covent Garden having given him, in Ruskin's words, an 'understanding of and regard for the poor'.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars soon presented the ambitious young artist with opportunities to do justice in paint to dramatic events, giving birth to monumental canvases such as 'The Battle of the Nile' (1800), 'Trafalgar' (1806-8) and 'The Field of Waterloo' (1818). Yet these pictures avoided triumphalist propaganda, notably in the Waterloo image of the corpses on the desolate battlefield.

During the brief truce during the Treaty of Amiens (1802-03), Turner travelled to France and Switzerland, visiting Jacques-Louis David's studio in Paris, where he saw the French artist's 'First Consul Crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass', which depicted Napoleon on a rearing charger (he had in reality made the passage on a more sure-footed mule). Turner's trip gave rise to several masterpieces, among them 'The Devil's Bridge, St. Gothard' (1803) and 'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' (1812), in which the Carthaginian general appears as a minute distant figure mounted on an elephant, dwarfed by mountains, stygian gloom and raging elements.

Fears of insurrection in Britain, stimulated by the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic conflicts and their restive aftermath, led to a series of laws restricting freedom of speech and assembly, the suspension of habeas corpus and other oppressive measures. Throughout this period Turner displayed in his work his support for radical causes, from parliamentary reform and free speech to Greek Independence and the Abolition of Slavery. Sometimes these sentiments appeared obliquely, as in his Welsh castle scenes alluding to the suppression of the Bards and local culture by the Norman invaders and the unlikely figures in Greek dress on the beach in 'Fishmarket at Hastings' (1824), with its punning reference to the Philhellenic naval hero of the Greek struggle, Captain Hastings.

But there was nothing ambiguous about the artist's nightmarish 'Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying)', which he exhibited at the Royal Academy to coincide with the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840.

Turner remained an indefatigable traveller all his life and steamboats, on which he often sailed, held a particular fascination for him. He made scores of drawings, watercolours and oils featuring them, among them 'Snow Storm - Steam-Boat of a Harbour's Mouth' (1842) and 'Staffa, Fingal's Cave' (1832).

The artist's depiction of the impact of modernization was not universally acclaimed. His 'Thames above Waterloo Bridge' (1835-40) was held up by one critic as 'a specimen of the anti-picturesque' with its 'profusion of gawky chimnies (sic), and clouds of annoying smoke, fetid smells, and stunning or creaking noises'.

Yet Turner's response to progress was nuanced, both celebrating the profits and taking account of the losses, and he was far from immune to the picturesque aspects of the past now in danger of vanishing for ever.

Two of his greatest works from the 1830s, 'Keelmen Hauling Coal by Moonlight' and the 'Fighting Temeraire' (which he called his 'darling'), richly evoke these equivocal feelings. The former romantically elegizes the old coal bargees, who were being displaced by direct railway links to mines, while the latter memorializes the last voyage of this noble survivor of Trafalgar, on its way to being broken up, drawn by a tug-boat, 'a superannuated veteran led by sprightly boy', as sail gave way to the age of steam.

Turner's Modern World; Tate Britain, London, 28 October 2020 - 7 March 2021

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023