This new show at Tate Britain provides a good opportunity to get a real view of JMW Turner’s long and adventurous artistic career. You really get a sense of the causes and passions which drove his best work and of the works which probably bored him to make but were created in a bid to gain royal patronage.
Turner the humanitarian is the strong message of this show. You can read his intense fury in the vigour of the brush strokes. For example, I’ve never before seen his painting called The Slave Ship – we have a copy to view rather than the original which is in Boston. You feel his rage at the iniquitous behaviour of slavers who, rather than allow their illicit trade to be intercepted by the Royal Navy, cast their ‘goods’ – captive slaves – into shark- infested water. Shocking to view.
Likewise, there’s huge drama to be felt and seen and felt in a painting entitled Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich. Turner says the storm was so ferocious that he feared he would be drowned and was lashed to the ship’s mast. The vigorous brush strokes and hectic swirls of paint capture convincingly the atmosphere and drama of the terrifying ordeal.
The takeaway from this show is a very strong sense of Turner’s outrage at unfairness and ill-treatment in all areas of society and his fury at the way the government of the day was draining funds from the people to pay for the war with France.
We often imagine that he might have mainly earned his living by creating attractive, acceptable landscapes of beautiful countryside or handsome cities (rarely featuring people) but this show demonstrates that he was very interested in the work people do. I did enjoy his painting of the Blacksmith. It’s not just a bucolic record of the man’s work but is entitled: A Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Pony. There’s a tremendous message to be found within the picture – it’s fury at taxes on trades and duty on essential materials (pig iron) introduced to pay government war debts.
It’s always good to see those favourites such as: Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway and The Fighting Temaraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. These two paintings acutely express Turner’s interest in the future and compassion for the passing of old technologies and innovations. All things must change.
The show is on at Tate Britain until 7 March 2021. It’s supported by the Manton Foundation with additional support from the Turner’s Modern World Exhibition Supporters Circle, Tate Americas Foundation, Tate Patrons and Tate Members. http://www.tate.org.uk