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. 🙂

Claude Lorrain re division of landscapes


Research Point

Look at the work of Claude Lorrain and Turner.  Write notes on how those artists divide their landscapes into foreground, middle ground and background.

landscape with brigands - claude lorrain

Landscape with Brigands 1633 by Claude Lorrain

Referring back to the illustration already used for Claude Lorrain.
Lorrain used tone and colour to great effect to achieve aerial perspective. Landscape with Brigands 1633 – Even though this is a monochrome etching, the use of tone is striking in separating the three main areas of the image.  The distant hills progressively become stronger in line and tone as they come forwards. The middle ground is more defined but less so than the foreground where all the action is, not only with the figures but with tonal values and detail on the near trees.

Lorrain predates Turner by well over a hundred years, yet Turner and his contemporaries have obviously observed and learnt from him. Turner used similar techniques in composition even though his style evolved very differently becoming a major influence on the Impressionists to come.




Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 re division of landscapes


Research Point

Look at the work of Claude Lorrain and Turner. Write notes on how those artists divide their landscapes into foreground, middle ground and background.

Crossing the Brook exhibited 1815 Joseph Mallord William Turner

Crossing the Brook by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1815
Tate Gallery London

An epic landscape painting which clearly defines fore, middle and backgrounds. The great sense of space and depth is my first impression. The distance is achieved with proportional scale and a more ethereal painting technique that eliminates detail and relies on subtle tones and muted colours for its illusion.  Even the sky has depth due to the smaller clouds closer together with them increasing in size and space as they come nearer to the viewer.  The middle ground has more features but these are still handled delicately plus encompassing the sunlight falling on the buildings and rocky, tree covered hills.

The foreground has much more detail and more contrasting tones. Features and subjects appear nearer due to the increase in size and detail. The whole painting is brought together by the framing of the trees on the left, the diagonal of the tree-lined hill guiding the eye up and to the right tree group and then off into the distance. Turner has crafted this beautifully and leads the viewer, although, one can also just get lost in the sheer expanse of the composition as if seeing the view in real life.

Raby Castle by  Joseph Mallord William Turner 1818

Raby Castle by
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1818
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

Raby Castle commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Darlington.
Again, this has distinct separation of back, middle and foregrounds, although this time the subject, the castle itself, is positioned in the middle ground. All the usual techniques have been employed ie the distant hills are muted and give atmosphere and depth. Stronger contrasts and details of the flora and fauna give a sense of closeness to the viewer, with the hounds and riders of the hunt showing scale. Cleverly, Turner has used the sky to great effect, not only for a sense of drama and framing the left upper section with a strong cloud formation, but also by using shafts of sunlight to illuminate the painting’s subject, even though the castle itself is fairly minimal in detail. Bringing the whole image together again with the composition leading the eye backwards and forwards across the painting in a natural and rhythmic way. So very clever.

Research and photographs from
JMW Turner 1775-1
851 from the Discovering Art Series
Turner by KE Sullivan First published 1996 Brockhampton Press, reprinted 2004

Pictures courtesy of Visual Arts Library London, Bridgeman Art Library