National Portrait Gallery and The Late Turner Exhibition, Tate Britain


National Portrait Gallery

The Ringwood Art Society of which I’m a member, organised a trip up to London to see the Late Turner Exhibition at the Tate Britain.  As we had afternoon tickets, my friend and I headed up to Trafalgar to the National Portrait Gallery.  We only had limited time, so only managed to peruse the ground floor in any great detail.  We were, however, lucky to see the new portrait of Baroness Betty Boothroyd by Brendan Kelly that had only been hung that morning.  I thought it a beautifully painted and luminous portrait, that showed the softer side of the woman who had previously had the dubious pleasure of keeping our elected MPs in check!  The brushwork was loose and expressive with “lost” edges that gave a glow about the painting that was quite mesmerising.

Whilst there, I was keen to show my friend a couple of favourites of mine, both by Ruskin Spear, one of Francis Bacon and one of Harold Wilson.  I was dumbfounded to discover that they no longer held the same appeal for me.  I have visited these two portraits several times, and have always loved them for their expressive brush marks.  Whilst they are still wonderful portraits, they just did not grab me as they used to.  I wonder why?

…and so, after lunch, we made our way back to Millbank.

Late Turner, Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

An unbelievably large collection of Turner’s work, covering the last fifteen years or so of his life – prolific doesn’t begin to describe the volume of creativity this man produced throughout his entire lifetime.  Even though Ruskin, as one of his sponsors, suggested Turner may have been losing it in his later years, he did indeed set painting free – or did he?

I very much enjoyed the watercolour sketches from his travels that you first encounter on the tour round the exhibition.  They are free and atmospheric with additions of graphite, some gouache body colour, ink and scratchings out.  Rivers and mountains being rendered beautifully in glowing colours on blue paper were particularly effective – will have to try that!  Turner’s sketchbooks are lessons to us all, quick vibrant drawings with notes to self.

Coming on to his oil paintings, some, vast in dimension with cyclonic skies, sweeping in circular motion grasping the viewer into a vortex of vivid colour and light.  Some of these works were so before their time, I could imagine them being painted today, if it weren’t for the figures (invariably in the bottom left of his composition) being so obviously in historic dress.  As time went on the figures became less discernible and I wished they hadn’t been there at all.  This is why I question setting painting free – did he feel he had to pander to his audience, who more than likely were disturbed, or at best uncomfortable with such wild abandon, that he had to include a human presence.  He was of course, painting as his living, hence the “Ain’t they worth more?” quote re his watercolours, did he then, in his quest for freedom still acknowledge his restrictions?  I have to say, I wasn’t enamoured with the “traditional” historical/mythical subjects of many of the larger oils, for me, it was the recurring vortices, the wild seascapes and glowering, looming skies that held my attention – in fact I could still be there looking at them!

The most striking for me was Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth….,  I also noted The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons and the many watercolours and sketches among my favourite exhibits.

This really is a fleeting impression of the full exhibition, I thoroughly enjoyed it, along with the insights into Turner’s personality and irreverence of the “establishment”, he must have been a breath of fresh air – as long as you didn’t have to deal directly with him. 🙂

4 thoughts on “National Portrait Gallery and The Late Turner Exhibition, Tate Britain

  1. Good portrait of ‘our Betty’. She looks a sympathetic character, but with a flinty determination that will brook no nonsense! She’d have stood up to cantankerous old Turner!

    You make a good point about the anomaly between T’s originality and his need to have a commercial eye – I thought the last series shown in the exhibition (was it of Switzerland?) were just a bit too easy on the eye.

    On that theme (real art versus commercial output), will you be able to get to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at The RA? I’ve read that he’s The greatest living artist – his work will sweep you off your feet – etc – I confess I’m not familiar with it personally but it sounds unmissable. His work is said to be so huge, unflinching and engaging with world issues that it makes our Damien and Trace look just silly.


    • Hi Jane. I have to admit i havent heard of him before but have taken a note and will check him out. There are so many exhibitions I would like to see including the later Rembrandt and Egon Schiele that are just starting. I will be putting membership to some galleries on my Christmas list this year, that would help with spreading the cost of entry and train fare.


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