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Turner in his element; The great artist showed an astonishing understanding of nature, discovers Richard Edmonds.

Byline: Ortrud Westheider and Michael Philipp

We thought we knew all there was to know about JMW Turner (known to his contemporaries as a painter of the elements).

But new things have recently emerged, which prove - if nothing else - that buildings in the 18th century, Turner's period if you like - had very thin walls - thin enough to allow eavesdropping.

When Turner was a member of the Royal Academy, housed at the time in Somerset House, in rooms now occupied by the Courtauld Galleries, meetings were held in rooms adjacent to those of the scientists of the Royal Society.

"So close are these rooms and so thin the walls dividing them that applause from the scientists or a row amongst the artists might be heard through the wall by both parties (Turner among them)," writes James Hamilton in one of the contributory essays in this intriguing, beautifully illustrated book.

Hamilton said: "The important point is that, in these adjacent rooms, new understandings of nature were being both found and discussed monthly.

"On one side of the wall, the artists were discussing the April 1801 exhibition, in which Turner exhibited Dutch Boats in a Gale, while, on the other side, the Royal Society Fellows and guests listened on April 16 and May 14 in the same year to the great scientist, Sir William Herschel, who was lecturing on the nature of the sun."

Herschel had examined the sun through the finest telescope available at the time, filtering the sun's rays through a trough of watered ink. Large bottles of coloured water were used in theatres a few years later to provide coloured beams needed in stage production. It's an extraordinary connection, to my mind.

Herschel saw the sun, with its "openings, indentations, ridges, nodules and pores", as an object, naming its parts scientifically, thus setting himself against the historic view of the sun as an unknowable, unseeable, major planet.

In an extraordinary way, it appears that Turner (and presumably other artists) were eavesdropping on the Herschel lectures. The impact on Turner was quite extraordinary, since, within two years of hearing of the sun's ridged surfaces, Turner was creating the same effect in paintings.

Again, in later years, Turner was to meet the scientist, Michael Faraday, who helped him to achieve greater durability with his pigments, up to that point at the mercy of strong light, as those with faded watercolours will know only too well.

Both Faraday and Turner showed an astonishing similarity in their observations of natural phenomena, with Turner identifying in painting after painting the visionary aspect he found in lakes and mountains and the changing conditions of the sky along with the movement of clouds.

All of which makes him the first great Impressionist, long before Renoir and Monet, with the water lilies, came on the scene.

According to the artist, John Ruskin, when asked where to find some of the loveliest skies in Europe, Turner, who was well acquainted with the colours of the sky above the sea, from the Bay of Naples to the Hebrides, replied spontaneously: "In the Isle of Thanet."

And we have to remember here that, as a young man in his 20s, Turner had recorded with huge enthusiasm the broad, open views of the sea and sky along the coast of Kent.

He called his sketches "colour beginnings" and the constant preoccupation with fire, earth, air and water, the four elements if you like, led in time to some of the world's most glorious masterpieces, including Turner's atmospheric The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, which was painted in 1834 and where a roaring inferno - terrifying in its intensity - surges up into the night sky - a devastation of orange and red burning horribly and, once again, rather like Herschel's view of the sun.

In a discussion of painting, Winston Churchill, a fine artist himself, once talked about the "sorting office of the mind", where chromatic impulses come into the human brain through the eyes, were sorted out and reconstituted as a viable painting carrying the artist's vision to us.

It is something you see here in the watercolours, where Turner did away with mere representational detail, turning instead to indistinctness, where the viewer can float comfortably in a kind of magical light, where specific form evaporates.

Pure watercolour, if you like, can do this and it was used by Turner and many others after him, including the Birmingham artist, David Cox.

All of these men could identify formlessness more successfully through watercolour than in oil painting, since, however much the pigment is thinned down with meths, it is always heavier than the tinted water floating on paper.

Sections of this sumptuous book demand that you return to them again and again. The watercolour, Storm on Margate Sands, is extraordinary. For this reviewer, it twins with Turner's watercolour sketch (made 40 years after the Herschel lectures), which shows the sun, not as a tight ball in the sky, but as a disintegrated force. These two images are a high point in the book - at least for me. But there is much here to stimulate and excite those who love glorious colour and find stimulation in the achievements of a recognised genius.

Right: Turner and the Elements


Mount Gothard by JMW Turner Turner's The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, in watercolour (1834)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 29, 2011
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