Paths of Fame : Turner watercolours from the Courtauld Gallery

Gallery London, The Courtauld Gallery, from 30 October 2008 to 25 January 2009

1.William Turner (1775-1851)
Chepstow Castel, c. 1793
Watercolour - 21 x 30 cm
London, Courtauld Gallery
Photo : The Courtauld Gallery

One could say that the price to pay for the indisputable domination of Turner museology by the Tate Britain is of course that other establishments might feel “overshadowed”, “complexed”, “frozen” to the point of abandoning any attempt at approaching the field for fear of suffering what would seem to be inevitably unflattering comparisons.
Thus the Courtauld Gallery has found it necessary to justify its choice by “using as a pretext” the bequest left by Dorothy Scharf (1942-2004), a donation of eight watercolours to the museum (see news item, in French, of 28/3/07), with another one added under the terms of a British decree as “a payment in kind” [1] for estate taxes in 2007. The introductory note by the Courtauld Gallery Director, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, which opens the excellent catalogue [2] conceived by the curator of the exhibition, Joanna Selborne, tells us moreover that this show can be justifiably seen as a tribute to Miss Scharf [3]

As always at the Courtauld Gallery with its confined spaces, this is a very compact exhibition [4] (the catalogue contains only thirty numbers, each accompanied by a very scholarly comment by Joanna Selborne [5]), not a bad thing in our day and age when one thinks of the abusive takeover of the blockbuster formula among large museums, notably in Paris. Given the title of the exhibition, this is obviously a chronological itinerary with a thematic approach also included insofar as the works are arranged chronologically according to four headings : “Early Ambition ”, “The Lure of the Continent”, “ Book Illustration”, “ Sand, Sea and Sky : Margate and Ruskin” [6].
In “Early Ambition” we see that at about twenty he had already acquired his financial independence thanks to the topographical engravings based on his drawings, sold notably to Copper-Plate Magazine, which specialized in publishing copper engravings. The exhibition offers us a beautiful example, Chepstow Castel, in three versions one might say. The traditional synoptic parallel between the original drawing (around 1793) (ill. 1) and the published engraving (1794) is enriched here by a curious addition : Turner was in an experimental technical phase [7] and he used the partial transparency of the paper to offer a second version on the back of the main work, meant to be seen of course from the front. It is displayed on a special easel allowing the visitor to see both sides.

2. William Turner (1775-1851)
Mont Blanc, from above Courmayeur, c. 1810
Watercolour - 28.2 x 39.8 cm
London, Courtauld Gallery
Photo : The Courtauld Gallery

It is well known that Turner travelled constantly, drawing quick sketches which he used later in his production : three hundred sketchbooks have come down to us and the Tate owns about thirty thousand sketches and watercolours. Unfortunately for the artist, the troubled context of the Napoleonic wars kept him from fulfilling his wish of discovering continental Europe and he had to wait till the age of forty to cross the Channel – except for the brief truce during the Amiens Peace treaty (1802) when he travelled to the Swiss and French Alps. That would immediately provide the spectacular The Upper Falls at Reichenbach (1802), then eight years later Mont Blanc, from above Courmayeur (around 1810) (ill. 2) which pursues the symmetrical composition in a “V” inaugurated in the 1790’s and which he continued after his second continental tour, once peace had returned, in 1817, with another major work, St. Goarshausen and Katz Castle (1817). In The Mer de Glace, Chamonix, with Blair’s Hut [8] (1806), the “V” is less sharp and the symmetry disappears : those interested in comparisons will no doubt think of the painting by Paul Nash, Totes Meer (1940-1941) [9] when looking at the foreground.

3. William Turner (1775-1851)
On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, c. 1841
Watercolour - 22.3 x 28.3 cm
London, Courtauld Gallery
Photo : The Courtauld Gallery

A mural text teaches us, or in some cases reminds us, that he returned to Italy in 1819-1820 and that in all he made over twenty trips to the continent. One natural landscape which had struck him the most during his first trip in 1802 was the sight of the Rhine waterfalls at Schaffhausen, in northern Switzerland, almost on the German border, made famous to the educated British public by the canvas of the same name done by the Alsatian artist Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1788 [10]. After over forty years’ gestation, the 1802 sketches matured into the masterpiece of The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen (around 1841). An almost identical scenario is reproduced in another masterpiece of his adult years : On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen (?1841) (ill. 3), a reminiscence of his first trip in 1802 but also of his return there in 1841.
An astute businessman as we have seen, Turner “recycled” a certain number of sketches done on the continent for publishers asking him for illustrations – this constitutes the third section of the exhibition. Thus, when John Murray (1778-1843) wanted to edit Byron’s works in seventeen monthly installments (1832-1833), each accompanied by two engravings, he naturally turned to the most fashionable artist at the time, that is Turner. The artist would provide half of the thirty-four drawings, and the exhibition offers us the cover for the next-to-last number (April 1833) : Cologne (around 1832-1833), a watercolour on Bristol-board of extreme delicacy based on his travel sketchbooks from 1817. Edward Finden’s engraving on it also appears in the exhibition.

4. William Turner (1775-1851)
Crook of Lune, looking towards Hornby Castle, c. 1816-1818
Watercolour and Bodycolour - 29.1 x 42 cm
London, Courtauld Gallery
Photo : The Courtauld Gallery

Turner did not content himself obviously with just trips abroad. An “exploration” of two months in northern England during the summer of 1816 meant to acquire material for another illustration project which was to include seven volumes led him naturally to the Lune river canyons, near Lancaster. There again, the spot had been made famous by a predecessor, this time the poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771) [11] , in a text published in 1769. The exhibition offers us both a preliminary pencil draft(1816), a rough watercolour sketch (around 1816-1818), the final version : Crook of Lune, looking towards Hornby Castle (around 1816-1818) (ill. 4) and the engraving by John Archer, published in the only volume of the planned series ever to appear, in 1823 [12].

5. William Turner (1775-1851)
Dawn after the Wreck, c. 1841
Watercolour and Bodycolour - 25.1 x 36.8 cm
London, Courtauld Gallery
Photo : The Courtauld Gallery

The last part of the exhibition presents only five numbers – to all appearances a meager offering – but these works, all from the same period (from around 1835 to 1841) and falling under the same theme, the beach at Margate (Kent) and the sea – with the sky hanging heavily over it a major presence – are of an extremely high quality. John Ruskin, fine connoisseur that he was praised them considerably – especially Dawn after the Wreck (around 1841) (ill. 5) which he named although no shipwreck, debris or drowned corpses are visible and which experts today still debate over to know if the hour depicted is dawn or sunset. The masterful reading of the work which John Ruskin provides in the fifth volume of his Modern Painters (1860) [13] is reproduced on a mural text, next to the engraving in the black manner included as an addition in the definitive edition of the work in 1888. Based on the dog, the shipwreck’s only survivor according to him, Ruskin reconstitutes the whole scene with unerring flair and plausibility, for the viewer’s great joy. Convincing or not, it is impossible to look at Dawn after the Wreck ever again without having his talented interpretation rush to mind. The press release for the show states that Ruskin’s passion for Turner contributed decisively in establishing his reputation as the greatest English watercolour artist of all times.

Visitors will have no problem in agreeing that Ruskin knows how to talk about Turner with just the right words enabling us to better appreciate this truly fascinating exhibition where quality prevails over quantity in a finely thought-out setting.

Visitor Information : London, The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN. Tel : 24/24 : + 44 (0)20 7848 2526. Open daily (except the 25 and 26 december) from 10.00 trought 18.00 (last entrance 17.30). Admission : £ 5 (reducted : £ 4).

Website of the exhibition

Version française

Antoine Capet, lundi 5 janvier 2009


[1] "Acceptance in Lieu”, La Tribune de l’Art has often mentioned "payment in kind”, see notably the news item of 17/8/07. An article will soon treat payments occurring since that article (the report for 2007/2008 has not yet appeared).

[2] Selborne, Joanna. Paths to Fame : Turner Watercolours from the Courtauld Gallery. With essays by Andrew Wilton & Cecilia Powell. London : The Courtauld Gallery & the Wordsworth Trust, 2008. xii, 166 p. ISBN : 1905256337 ; 9781905256334 (hardback).

[3] At the same time as the Turner exhibition, a selection of other works bequeathed by Dorothy Scharf is on display in a nearby room. There is particularly a large watercolour, Kayes, Mount Athos by Edward Lear (1812-1888), better known to the public for his Book of Nonsense (1846.

[4] See our review of its recent exhibition on Sickert.

[5] Who is filmed while commenting on certain works.

[6] Early Ambition ; The Lure of the Continent ; Book Illustrations, c. 1816-32 ; Sand, Sea and Sky : Margate and Ruskin.

[7] We would like to point out in passing that the visitor is provided with a very useful small booklet on the techniques Turner used along with the traditional “practical” leaflet on the exhibition.,

[8] This is the refuge which was rebuilt by the British mountain climber Charles Blair in 1779, which Goethe notably used.

[9] Currently at the Tate.

[10] Currently at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

[11] Extremely famous among educated British readers for his Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (1751), with the famous lines “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, which inspired the title of the Humphrey Cobb novel (1935) adapted to the movie screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1957. We do not know if the authorities at the Courtauld Gallery picked up on the irony of the title for their exhibition, “Paths of fame”, unsettlingly close to Thomas Gray’s warning.

[12] Whitaker, Thomas Dunham. A History of Richmondshire, in the North Riding of the County of York, together with those Parts of the Everwicschire of Domesday which form the Wapentakes of Lonsdale, Ewecross, and Amunderness in the Counties of York, Lancaster and Westmoreland. London : Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1823.

[13] Modern Painters : Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters proved by Examples from the Works of Modern Artists especially from those of J.M.W. Turner. By a Graduate of Oxford. London : Smith, Elder, 1846-1860.

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