This month, Turner Contemporary in Margate launches 'Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature' (5 October-5 January 2014% an expanded version of the exhibition shown earlier in the year at Compton Verney. The selection has chiefly been made by Michael Rosenthal, and comes entirely from Tate's collection. As a result, it is perhaps inevitably skewed towards Tate's star artist--J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)--who is just as at home in Margate these days as he is at Millbank.
Over the last 50 years, several groundbreaking exhibitions have steadily enriched the collective understanding of the part played by plein air oil sketching in the development of landscape, and this show further examines the practice. To some extent, it has been the apparently spontaneous character of these works--though this is often a deceptive feature--that has driven aesthetic appreciations of them. But coupled with that has been the notion that the artists who struggled to give precise form to the natural world they saw in front of them achieved a truth that was absent in the pictures concocted back in the studio. In another sense, interest in the process of sketching from nature has also been an archaeological endeavour, revealing the levels of revolutionary innovation below that effected by the Impressionist school in the 1870s.
As a result of all this, we are now better equipped to know that landscape artists overcame the difficulties of painting in oils in the open air far earlier, and over a much longer period, than used to be accepted. There was in fact much greater continuity, though each generation had to rediscover and occasionally adjust the meaning of the process--something that was, of course, defined by practical advances in painting materials, such as the introduction of portable tubes of paint in the 1840s.
While the new exhibition concentrates chiefly on what has been termed the 'Decade of English Naturalism' in the first years of the 19th century, it reiterates the significance of Italy, and especially Rome, as the epicentre for the eruption of oil sketching as a European phenomenon. Artists resident there in the 18th century were aware that landscape painters a century earlier had developed their images with reference to closely observed studies from nature. The most famous of these was Claude Lorrain, who was introduced to this fusion of real and ideal by Joachim von Sandrart. Unfortunately, no oil sketches have survived, but the bold and direct approach discernible in his evocative and wide-ranging pen and ink drawings provides a useful indication that this was a valued exercise.
Claude's compatriot, Claude-Joseph Vernet, was one of the chief proponents of plein air studies in Rome in the 1740s and '50s. Although Vernet conceded the benefits of drawing, he was a more passionate advocate for painting direct from nature, summing up the advantages simply: 'because you have drawing and colour at the same time'. Even so, the studies he produced were still intended for reference, rather than something to be exhibited in their own right.
It was this tradition that the Welsh artist Richard Wilson assimilated during his stay in Italy between 1750 and 1757. However, it is in the work of one of his pupils, Thomas Jones (1742-1803), that the experimental potential of the sketching process was realised to original effect (Fig. 2). Like the other artists of his day, in his images Jones tended to ignore what lay immediately in front of him, concentrating primarily on the middle distance, or on landscape or architectural features that caught his eye. Very few of these were motifs that, in themselves, would be of any utility in his studio paintings. They are cropped in unusual ways, accentuating forms and the patterns they create, and often engage with the fall of light. Not surprisingly, since their discovery from the 1970s onwards, Jones's small studies have been claimed as exemplifiers of a distinctly modern sensibility. This may well be a case of us imposing our values on the past, but as Monet was to say of Turner, Jones definitely looked at the world afresh, with uncluttered, wide-open eyes. Fittingly, he is richly represented in the exhibition by six works.
Within a decade of Jones's striking observations, hostilities across Europe meant that the Italian Grand Tour was no longer available to most British artists. Confined to their native island for over 20 years, they instead explored its landscape at a time when the new aesthetic theories of the Picturesque and the Sublime determined the ways in which the natural world was framed. Running in tandem with this was a concern for a more naturalistic landscape painting, which sought to introduce an unadorned, factual specificity to the recreation of a particular scene. Many of the youthful artists whose work purveyed this kind of direct observation, such as Cornelius Varley, William Havell or John Crome, often also made studies in oils during their sketching excursions, thereby sustaining the imported lessons of the Italian tradition.
It was in the early years of the 1800s that John Constable (1776-1837) independently identified the absence of a type of pure landscape painting--one not based on pre-existing models or formats--in the kind of academic art then exhibited in London. His response was to try to narrow the gap between what an artist might actually see and record, and what was acceptable in a picture. He hoped to challenge the expectations of artifice and underlying moral purpose. By autumn 1814 he was setting down most of the preliminary layers of his paintings directly in front of the motif, overcoming the difficulties of capturing specific light effects by working over successive days at the same time, as seen in a view of Brightwell church and village (Fig. 4). Through a long process of experimentation, he developed an unparalleled facility in his use of oil paint, particularly in his scientifically minded sky studies (Fig. 5).
Constable's arrival at a stylistic compromise between direct observation and academic ambition in the 1820s forms the culmination of his rising trajectory in the Turner Contemporary exhibition. But the steady nature of Constable's progress throws into sharp relief the erratic character of his great contemporary's attitude to sketching in oils. Although Turner is well represented, by roughly the same number of works, all of his come from the years 1805-09. This coincides with the period when he was striving to establish his own idea of a native form of landscape, based in his case on the notion of naturalising the idealised model he had absorbed from Claude Lorrain.
Working around Twickenham, in an area common to many other plein air sketchers, Turner sought to bestow on the scenery of the Thames the charged resonances more usually associated with pastoral Italy. In addition to the panels painted near Windsor and Walton Bridges in 1805 (Fig. 3), he was subsequently persuaded to take up oils during a visit to Plymouth in 1813. In both instances the results were effective, disguising for the most part any difficulties he had faced in working in an unpredictable environment, or the enforced reduction in his range of colours. In fact, the process of sketching in oils was to contribute to the advances he made in his contemporaneous exhibition pictures. It is curious then that it seems never to have become a fundamental part of his method of working, and that his primary response to nature was invariably in the form of pencil sketches.
That this was indeed the case has been given greater emphasis in recent years, as many canvases that were previously thought to have been painted al fresco on the Thames, or during his time in Italy, have proved to be studio works, based on pencil outlines. It was the anomalous, sketch-like appearance of many of the incomplete works found in Turner's studio that created misconceptions about how they had been produced. Similarly, the idea of Turner as a progressive artist was perhaps not compatible with the academic practice of etudes--sketches painted from nature; esquisses--studies developed back in the studio; and finally ebauches--the rough adumbrations of a chosen composition which again, could be worked up later. Nonetheless, many of the paintings from Turner's Thames odyssey nearly fall into these categories. Though this discovery somewhat diminishes his significance in the narrative of British plein air oil sketching, it emphasises Turner's skill at reproducing both the appearance and the essential
truth of a sketch in other formats.
It was in Rome, over the winter of 1819-20, that the mature Turner articulated his reasons for not following the ongoing trend among visiting artists for working in colour. Fundamentally it came down to the limitations imposed by his materials: for he said that in the rime it would take him to paint just one colour study, he could have made as many as 15 or 16 pencil sketches. Visual information was what he wanted, and in abundance. He was less interested in colour and sentiment, which he could supply himself, either from memory or imagination. Waiting for paint to dry was just frustrating.
Where he did afterwards sketch in colour, it was almost entirely restricted to the use of watercolour, sometimes on pieces of coloured or toned paper, selected in preference to white sheets in order to dull the reflective glare of sunlight. But in general he was happy to record all he saw in notebooks of various shapes and sizes. By the end of his life he had covered many thousands of pieces of paper with quickly jotted impressions--all now available on Tate's website (www.tate.org.uk). Many of these seem crude or unremarkable, with no evident potential for picture-making. However, Turner's dynamic uses of this huge body of material, sometimes many years after it had been first observed, are a source of ongoing revelations.
An example of Turner's ability to transform his raw elements into something magical can be found in the celebrated colour sketch of c. 1835-40 known as The Scarlet Sunset (Fig. 1; it is not included in the exhibition at Margate, but can be seen by appointment in the Print Room at Tate Britain). Measuring no more than the average paperback, this powerful watercolour has a potency and depth that suggests a much more substantial work.
It is actually painted on a small sheet of the blue paper that Turner regularly used in the 1820s and '30s. Some of the sheets were evidently deployed to make rudimentary sketches from the motif with a combination of pencil and white highlights. Others, such as those painted in watercolour and gouache at Petworth House, sit somewhere between direct observation and fantasy, possessing either an informal ease in the mark-making of scenes, or only a summary connection to the locale. These were private works, but elsewhere Turner managed to retain this lightness of touch in the colour designs he produced on blue paper for his published sets of views of the rivers Loire and Seine (1833-35).
Painted slightly later than those, The Scarlet Sunset fulfils the requirements of traditional topographical description, but is more crucially an evocation of mood and colour. Turner's use of colour by this date was distinctly at odds with the earthy naturalism of 30 years earlier, drawing instead on the range of new pigments available that dramatically lightened his palette.
John Ruskin recognised that in works like this, the main element of the picture space had become colour, and he defined its characteristics as 'deep and glowing'. He was, however, unable to identify the location, reasonably plumping for Tours on the Loire. Others have suggested Rouen, and a variety of cities on the Rhine or the Vltava. But the place depicted is in fact derived from the group of pencil sketches Turner made at Frankfurt in 1835, on his return from Prague (Figs. 6 & 7).
Stretching across the middle of the composition is the many-arched bridge that had been in place, with modifications, since at least the 13th century. To the left of the bridge is the stoutly earthbound belfry of the Kaiserdom Sankt Bartholomaus (now rebuilt after damage by fire and subsequent bombing). Over on the other side of the river are the towers of the suburb of Sachsenhausen. One detail reveals that Turner did not make this sketch from nature and that the composition was, at some stage, developed from his recollections. This is the spire on the far left, which appears to be taller than the Dom, although the cathedral was then the highest tower in the city. Turner may have intended the spire as the Eschenheimer Turm (part of the old city fortifications), or an exaggerated version of the Alte Nikolaikirche, both of which he had sketched.
The new identification of the image as Frankfurt focuses attention on the satur-ated sunlight at the centre of the image, underscored by the quick slalom of reflected yellow light. Rather than representing a sunset, as Ruskin supposed, Turner's viewpoint was from the west looking east, which means that he was recreating, or imagining, an almost volcanic morning effect. Although Ruskin was prone to detecting symbolic intimations in Turner's sunsets, he was not the first to confuse that effect with sunrises. Indeed Turner himself had pointed out this common mistake to one of his admirers.
The Frankfurt watercolour is essentially an esquisse, rather than a sketch per se. But it illustrates how radical Turner's approach to topography was by this date, something that is more acutely appreciated by comparing it with an 18th-century depiction of the city from the same angle by Christian Georg Schutz (Historisches Museum Frankfurt). Whereas the latter merely transcribes neatly the panorama of the city's architecture, Turner's image relegates the city to a secondary role, subsuming it in the radiance of daybreak.
In developing images such as this, Turner arrived at something new that would only gain public acceptance many years later. Monet's controversial impression of the sunrise over the harbour at Le Havre (Fig. 8), similarly shifted the focus of interest to the perception of a specific moment, but it also went beyond Turner in making the primary act of sketching from nature itself a worthwhile enterprise. It would be satisfying to think that Monet might have been inspired by Turner's watercolour while he was in London in 1870-71, although it seems unlikely that it was on display before the 1880s. Nonetheless Monet could have discerned from colour studies of the same kind that Turner had found a means of liberating the aesthetics of the sketching process, and thereby freed painting to go in new directions.
'Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature' is at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until 5 January 2014. Visit www. turner contemporary.org for further information.
Ian Warrell is the author of several books on Turner, including Turner's Secret Sketches (Tate Publishing, 2012).