London, Tate Britain, from 9 August 2010 to 31 July 2011

The Tate collections are so extensive that it can effortlessly stage two simultaneous, and beautiful, exhibitions on related subjects – presenting paintings and drawings by some of the same artists in both. Clearly, the theme of the “sublime” (see article) and that of Romanticism overlap on many occasions – and the entries for Romantics often refer to the “sublime” dimension of many works, displayed in the Clore Gallery rooms, normally devoted to Turner. We remind our readers that this museum was originally known as the National Gallery of British Art – and it would be therefore superfluous to point out that we are speaking here of course, of British Romanticism.

The exhibition rooms have been entrusted to different curators and David Blayney Brown, whose mural text presents the welcoming explanation for visitors entering the first vast room, is naturally very aware of the obstacles in determining “Romanticism”. His argument holds water. The term “has been retained ‘for want of a better name’ to describe preoccupations of thinkers, writers and artists expressed with special intensity at a particular point in history : liberty and individual rights, the creative power of the human mind and our relationship to the natural world.” Observing the modest tone which most befits such a challenging enterprise, he explains his method in terms which are sure to win over the general public, by making it clear that “our display does not attempt to be definitive, but to show artists and works of art whose vision, imagination or expression reflects these concerns – often in strikingly different ways […].”

1. Jacob More (c. 1740-1793)
The Deluge, 1787
Oil on canvas - 181 x 233.1 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

2. Francis Danby (1793-1861)
The Deluge, c. 1840
Oil on canvas - 84.5 x 112 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

3. J.M.W Turner (1775-1851)
The Deluge, c. 1805
Oil on canvas - 270.5 x 180 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

To continue our study of the sublime started during our previous visit, we first stopped in front of the paintings evoking this genre without following the order of the visit – and, indeed, most of the accompanying signs mention it. Thus, it is extremely interesting to compare Jacob More’s Deluge (ill. 1) and Francis Danby’s (ill. 2) presented in the gallery highlighting the sublime, to Turner’s Deluge (ill. 3) which hangs here. However, we were surprised when reading the sign, which seems to indicate a chronological contradiction, since it indicates that More’s Deluge was, as was Danby’s (and here there is no paradox), influenced by Turner’s “apocalyptic sublime”.
In the same room, focusing on paintings which were successful as soon as they were exhibited, visitors will find a Study for ‘the château of Haleigh’ (around 1828-29) by Constable which is magnificent in its desolation, as well as the remarkable Slate Quarries (ill. 4) by John Crome, which David Blayney Brown says : “it was too advanced even for Turner” : two other ways to decline the sublime.

4. John Crome (1768-1821)
Slate Quarries, 1802-1805
Oil on canvas - 154.2 x 188.9 cm
London, Tate Britian
Photo : Tate Britain

5. Paul Nash (1889-1946)
The Dead Sea, 1940-41
Oil on canvas - 116.7 x 168 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

Depending on whether one appreciates his taste for accumulating references and comparisons, visitors will adhere or not to curator Matthew Ims’ initiative of devoting one of the last two rooms to “neo-Romantics” of the 20th century present in the museum collections : Graham Sutherland (1903-1980), John Piper (1903-1992) and Paul Nash (1889-1946), whose Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (ill. 5) from 1940-41 – a “sea” of wrecked German warplanes – can also be associated it is true to the tradition of the sublime. But one finds more unfamiliar names as well such as Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) and Keith Vaughan (1912-1977), whose Cain and Abel (1946) applies without any doubt the use of excess alongside the sublime.
And although the second of these last rooms, devoted to Andrew Wilson, offers a selection of contemporary British photography, which supposedly continued to express the Romantic attraction to landscape, with such great names as Raymond Moore -1920-1987), Keith Arnatt (1930-2008) and John Riddy (born in 1959), it is obvious that the heart of the exhibition lies in its most trusted values, notably Turner, presented as the dominant figure of British Romantic tradition.

6. J.M.W Turner (1775-1851)
I Carceri, c. 1810
Gouache, pencil and watercolour on paper - 48.7 x 68.7 cm
London, Tate britain
Photo : Tate Britain

David Blayney Brown had the excellent idea of conceiving the first room as a sampling of what awaits visitors, with a deliberate blend of genres contained in what today qualifies as Romantic – we saw above the large definition of “Romanticism” as seen by our contemporaries. Here we have the curious Opening of Walhalla (1842) by Turner – this is the temple built by Louis I of Bavaria, and not the mythic cemetery of German heroes so ardently celebrated a few years later by Wagner - painted for the Germans who, not understanding, ridiculed it, as well as the scene derived from the antique legend, Hero and Leander (1837), also by Turner. Both of these large paintings face off at each end of the room, not as two sides of the same coin but as two works – although by the same artist and only five years apart – which illustrate to perfection the thematic range found under the term “Romanticism”. Light years away from these paintings steeped in ancestral legends and myths, the side walls offer representations of the harsh reality of British society at the time : the fumes of the industrial revolution by Paul Sandby Munn (1773-1845) in his Blast Furnace in Bedlam, Madeley Dale, Shropshire (1803) all in gradual shades of brown recalling marquetry technique, or, worse still, I Carceri, in the Piranese tradition, a gouache which Turner produced (ill. 6) around 1810 for a series of lectures on perspective at the Royal Academy. The curator had some fun – to the delight of visitors of course – in going so far as to juxtapose two almost contemporary works by this same artist, but separated by an insurmountable thematic gap : The Temple of Poseidon at Sunium (Cape Colonna) (around 1834) and The Northampton Election, 6 December 1830 (about 1830-31). The satire – always there as soon as one mentions the elections preceding the great Parliamentary reform of 1832 : cf. Hogarth [1] – corresponds to, in this easily identifiable case of the country’s political history, the “ liberty and individual rights” mentioned by David Blayney Brown in his introduction, one of the Romantic traits. The pertinence with Romanticism however, seems much less evident in the satirical drawing by Thomas Rolandson (1756-1827), Sir Joseph Banks about to Eat an Alligator (1788) – Sir Joseph Banks was the rather innocuous president of the Royal Society [2], who could only be criticized for his obsession to the natural sciences. The reference becomes much more obvious, when thinking of the spleen of the perfect Romantic figure, in the self-derogatory tone of two drawings by Turner at the same time (around 1808) placed above each other : The Garreteer’s Petition and The Artist’s Workshop.

7. Henry Wallis (1830-1916)
Chatterton, 1856
Oil on canvas - 90.5 x 120.5 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

Formerly, exhibitions always observed the tradition of presenting a “main attraction”. This is no longer the case but we would like to revive it here by saying that if we were to choose one among the many marvelous pieces which the Tate offers its visitors in the Clore Gallery, it would without hesitation be The Death of Chatterton (ill. 7) by Henry Wallis, who glorifies this archetype of the tragic “Romantic” poet, a source of admiration for the greatest English poets of the Romantic period in the largest sense Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, while Dante Gabriel Rossetti keeps him in his pantheon and Vigny imagines a life for him which never existed. The last example is that of the “failed poet”-writer George Meredith (1828-1909), at the peak of his youth, who sat as a model for Wallis. We have here both the” Romantic” pictorial treatment of destiny’s cruelty and the intellectual glorification of the values, often without hope, of the tortured “Romantic”, “the God-less man” of the modern era.

The large room housing the emblematic masterpiece of the iconoclastic dimension of Romanticism is, paradoxically, the only one where David Blayney Brown observes a strict symmetry, respecting geometrical classical rules, in the hang – and does so on each of the walls. In answer to Chatterton’s modern tragedy, we see a painting of similar size – here treating a tragic episode from antiquity : Hero, having thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, dies on his Body (1829), by William Etty. Between these, the curator has chosen to present a large full-length standing portrait of Sir Brooke Boothby (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1781), a bucolic scene which skillfully ties in to those on either side - despite the absolute contrast of themes – thanks to the book entitled Rousseau which the subject is holding.
Another obviously deliberate effect appears next, this time thanks to Thomas Ardill in the room highlighting the early Turner : a hang which is lower than usual of The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806) and Ploughing up Turnips, near Slough (1809) (Windsor) – two works with also totally different themes – which results in a disequilibrium when viewing the paintings by lowering the horizon to almost exactly eye level for an adult thus distracting attention away from the lower part – of the ground and occupied by human figures – and focusing on the upper half : a magnificent stormy sky in The Goddess and a serene iridescence in Ploughing up Turnips. We can only guess that this unusual choice was inspired by the wish to attract visitors’ attention to the technical treatment of the sky in the Romantics – notably Turner – but there is no mural text to explain this museographical decision. Moreover, we were struck when viewing the entire exhibition by the importance – due to the British Romantics or to the Tate itself ? – of the sky in all its forms : of course Constable’s Study of Clouds (ill. 8), but also three other canvases by the same master presented in this room on his work : The Gleaners, Brighton (1824), The Sea near Brighton (1826) and a Study of the Sea and the Sky, Isle of Wight (1827). In all three cases, the sky dominates the painting, occupying almost three-fourths of the entire surface.

8. John Constable (1776-1837)
Study of Clouds, 1822
Oil on paper - 60.5 x 70.5 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

Nicola Moorby was given the weighty charge of delving into Turner’s mature period to choose those works most suited for the occasion. Few visitors will quibble over her selection, as it illustrates perfectly the painter’s progression towards light effects and bright colours which characterize Sunset on a Lake (around 1840), Sunrise with Sea Monsters and also The Norham Château, Sunrise (both around 1845).

9. J.M.W Turner (1775-1851)
Fiel at Waterloo, 1818
Oil on canvas - 186 x 277.3 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

The contrast is quite obvious with the “patriotic” description of The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1806-08) – but already less so in Field at Waterloo (ill. 9), even if there are no bright colours. The transition is perfectly achieved thanks to War : the Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842) – the title is not explicit but alludes to Napoleon during his exile on the Isle of Elba.

10. William Blake (1757-1827)
First Book of Urizen (plate n° 10), c. 1818
Engraving with watercolour - 26.6 x 18.5 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

11. Richard Dadd (1817-1886)
The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, 1855-1864
Oil on canvas - 67 x 52.5 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

We conclude by drawing our readers’ attention to a magnificent ensemble which few people have been fortunate to see until now, as it was acquired by the Tate in 2009. This is a group of eight plates –two etchings highlighted with gouache and watercolours by Blake himself after production, around 1818 – which were to illustrate three of his works from 1796 : his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his Book of Thel and his First Book of Urizen (ill. 10). The extraordinay n° 10 plate for the last one – hallucinating in the initial sense of the term – bears a handwritten inscription which is absolutely cryptic given the figure on the left which looks half-alive or half-dead : “Everything is an attempt/To be human”. Philippa Simpson, in charge of the room with the title “Blake and the Romantic imagination”, had the marvelous idea of showing two paintings of another hallucinating figure – to the point of being insane : we are referring to Richard Dadd, who can be seen in the room with Bacchanal Scene (1862) and particularly The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (ill. 11) [3] completed while interned in an institution for alienated people in London. A bit further on, the presence of Titania and Bottom (around 1790) by Fuseli reminds us how the Romantics – and not just the British, cf. Berlioz – were fascinated by Shakespeare’s plays.

We left this energizing exhibition – on condition one likes British Romantic painting – with a general impression of an indefinable unity in this obvious diversity, the “stunningly different ways” which David Blayney Brown talked about in his introduction. True, we cannot help but wonder what these works which at times seem so different have in common after all. But one senses or seems to sense a point of convergence – although we would find it hard to formulate explicitly : does it not basically correspond to the refusal by all of these Romantics of the deductive process inherent to classical thinking ?

Visitor information : London, Tate Britian, Millbank. London SW1P 4RG. Tel : +44 (0)20 7887 8888. Open every day (except 24-25 December) from 10am to 6pm. Free entrance.

There is no catalogue for the exhibition.

Exhibition website

Antoine Capet, vendredi 10 décembre 2010


[1] A series of four canvases entitled The Election (1754-55), currently at Sir John Sloane’s Museum in London.

[2] The complete name of the institution is The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.

[3] Mercutio’s long tirade in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from which the anecdote is taken is magnificently rendered on a visual level – a rare example of the perfect transcription from one method of expression to another.

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