Words & Pictures book club – May 2018


Words & Pictures

Book Club

“Tin Man”

by Sarah Winman

Monday 14th May 2018, 2-4pm

Gleneagles Tea Rooms

Join us for the very first Words & Pictures book club where we will be reading and discussing novels in which visual art and artists are relevant to the narrative.

At our April meeting we’ll discuss Sarah Winman’s “Tin Man”, an extraordinary story in which the art of Vincent Van Gogh symbolises hope, possibilities and life.

Sarah Winman’s “Tin Man” (2017) is published by Tinder Press.

“Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh (1888; The National Gallery, London; c/o artuk.org)

Words & Pictures meets monthly 2-4pm in the glorious surrounds of the Gleneagles Tea Rooms – where there is tea and cake a-plenty!

Gleneagles Tea Rooms

All welcome but please email me to reserve your place: chasingtales@rocketmail.com

Gleneagles Guesthouse
5-6 Clifftown Parade
Southend-on-Sea, Essex SS1 1DP


Art History Mornings – May 2018

Art History Mornings at The Beecroft Gallery
Saturday 26th May, 10.30am-12.30pm
with Dr ML Banting

Constable in France:
The Artists’ Village of Barbizon

When paintings by John Constable were exhibited in Paris in 1824, they sparked a significant discussion among French artists. Dissatisfied with the revolutionary grand-style of Jacques-Louis David and his followers at the French Academy, these young artists left Paris for the village of Barbizon, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, to paint everyday rural life in natural colours and soft brushstrokes. Today we’ll explore Constable’s influence on artists such as Delacroix and this radical new path taken by the artists of The Barbizon School such as Corot and Millet who would open the way to Impressionism.

Millet, Jean-Francois, 1814-1875; Going to Work

Jean-Francois Millet: Going to Work
(1850, Glasgow Museums c/o artuk.org)

Meetings are held 10.30am – 12.30pm in the Beecroft Gallery lecture theatre.
Each talk costs £10 and includes tea/coffee (biscuits!)
For further information please contact Mark Banting by email chasingtales@rocketmail.com or via twitter @TheCommonViewer
These monthly Saturday morning art history talks are educational yet informal and open to anyone with an interest in art.

All the Colours of the Sun: J.M.W. Turner at Petworth House & Beyond

Art History Mornings at The Beecroft Gallery – April 2018

At the heart of our research discussion today is the autumn of 1827, when Turner enjoyed an extended visit to Petworth House – a bohemian community of artists, writers and the friends of Lord Egremont coming and going at will. Turner’s paintings and sketches there were experiments in painting the effects of light.

Here we similarly explore these themes in Turner’s art, at Petworth and beyond, before and after, to look at his depiction of light, his portrayals of the sun on canvas and his use of increasingly dramatic colour.

The notes that follow, written by Dr ML Banting, April 2018, are for members of the Beecroft Art History Group and not for quotation or publication. All images and resources are referenced as to their source as far as possible – but any additional material is always more than welcome.  

Turner - Interior 1

  1. Prologue: The First Chaos of the World

Our starting point is this painting, currently on show at Tate Britain. It is not a finished painting, indeed art historians are not even sure what its subject matter might be. It could be the drawing room at East Cowes Castle – the home of Turner’s architect friend and patron John Nash. Certainly the Tate have concluded this is the case, and (re)titled it: “Interior of a Great House: The Drawing Room, East Cowes Castle” (c.1830) – we can make out what appears to be a piano, a mirror and a portrait on the wall. But the painting seems to have been reworked by Turner over the years, and might be the beginning of a planned painting called “The Sack of A Great House” – hence the disturbance of the furniture in the foreground. 

To me, however, this is one of Turner’s most beautiful and fascinating paintings, even in its ‘unfinished’ state; more importantly it reveals to us what makes his vision so unique.

JMW Turner was a genius painter; no-one compares to his style of fluency. A common Cockney Londoner born in the back streets of Covent Garden in 1775, he was elected to the position of Royal Academician in 1802, at the tender age of just 26. Not that he didn’t have his critics. Indeed by the end of his life (he died in 1851) he was seen as something of a “madman” who hurled pots of paint (or kitchen ingredients such as spinach or eggs and mustard) to make his paintings; certainly he had gone somwhat off the scale of the Academy’s expectations, one critic declaring that the artist “delights in abstractions that go back to the first chaos of the world” [reference?]. 

This idea of “the first chaos of the world” is very apt as we look at “Interior” – a symphony – cacophony – of colour, from blazing white through pastel to that dramatic contrast of the emerald green in the bottom right hand corner with the bright vermilion reds and golden oranges of the lower central area (notably, emerald green was only newly available as an off-the-shelf colour in 1830). If we come in close: 

Turner - Interior 8

we can see the building-up of colours, all intensely worked to create depth and richness. 

Turner - Interior 5

And here, the dazzling light of the window is created using a palette knife, paintbrush, the brush end and scratches from Turner’s thumb nail (which was kept long specifically for this purpose). 

Turner - Interior 6

The colours, the textures; everything is in motion – like the chemicals and gases that exploded with the Big Bang and the formation of the universe – we’re back to the first chaos of the world, which may well be the best way to think about this painting – indeed Turner’s approach generally to his later paintings – the paint building up on the canvas and the colours exploding to create a ‘solid’ picture. If we look again at the whole image

Turner - Interior 1 we see that this is not ‘simply’ an unfinished painting of a room with sunlight streaming through the window.

Graham Reynolds writes that “a brilliant light dissolves the scene into its colour constituents and spills like debris on the floor of the room”. In effect, the sunlight coming through the window is the catalyst that brings about everything else we see.

I would argue, however, against the word “dissolves” in order to suggest the opposite: that the light actively constructs the room, makes it visible; it is the light that makes the colour appear to us and so makes the room appear, for without the light there would be nothing, we’d not be able to see it. As the gases of the first chaos made the universe, so the sunlight pouring through the window forms the room, makes it real and solid through light and colour.

We’ll return to “Interior” at the end. 

2. Claude’s aerial light and Herschel’s sun

George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont FRS (18 December 1751 – 11 November 1837) of Petworth House in Sussex and Orchard Wyndham in Somerset, was a British peer, a major landowner and a great art collector [Wikipedia]. 

Bought with Love: The Secret History of British Art Collections: BBC i-player: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0376w4j (not currently available).

Petworth, Sussex, the Seat of the Earl of Egremont: Dewy Morning exhibited 1810 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Petworth, Sussex, the Seat of the Earl of Egremont: Dewy Morning (1810; Tate Britain; c/o artuk.org)

Turner had first met Lord Egremont in 1809, when the Earl began buying some of the artist’s critically acclaimed exhibition paintings – augmenting the collection of Old Masters at Petworth House with contemporary works by living artists. It wasn’t until 1827 however that Turner came to stay for an extended period at Petworth. As James Hamilton writes in “Turner: A Life” (Hodder & Stoughton publishers, 1997): 

“Turner could… walk around Petworth in 1827 and see how greatly he had personally contributed to the ambience of the house… Walking around the Gallery, looking at his pictures, we can sense that he had mixed feelings… looking at himself and his own past… He had travelled many miles since making these paintings. he had grown and changed, and begun to see the world in a new light.” (Hamilton, p.229)

At this point, Egremont had fifteen oil paintings by Turner; but the most recent had been painted seventeen years before 

(see http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/results?SearchTerms=Turner+Petworth) 

still, they reflected the artist’s fascination with the 17th century painter Claude Lorrain, who worked in and around Rome for much of his life.

Lorrain, Claude, 1604-1682; Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648)
Claude Lorrain (1604–1682); The National Gallery, London (c/o artuk.org)

Turner called him “aerial Claude” due to the extraordinary depiction – creation – of light that Claude achieves. This painting in the National Gallery shows Claude’s regular construction of an image: the framing architecture either side which concentrates the light in a central vertical that leads the eye from the distant horizon right down to the foreground where the action/ story happens.

This is the painting that made Turner cry when he saw it for the first time.

It depicts the beginning of the Queen of Sheba’s voyage to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem – the vessels are loaded with luggage and gifts, the early morning sun lights up the classical architecture. The Queen is on the steps to the right. And, what is most important about the picture for our discussion today, the sun itself is right at the centre of the whole scene. 

This positioning of the sun in the middle of the painting is something that Turner also adopted. 

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire (1815)
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The National Gallery, London (c/o artuk.org)

Here we see the ‘Claudian’ construction of the image, the rising sun right at the centre and the light pouring down through to the foreground. 

The subject itself is taken from Virgil’s “Aeneid” and the struggle between the two cities of Carthage and Rome during the Punic Wars (in many ways a parallel with the British-French struggle of the Napoleonic Wars). The figure in blue and white is Dido as she directs the builders and architects; the figure in armour might be her lover Aeneus; the children playing with a toy boat on the river bank symbolising the fragile but growing naval power of Carthage. And there’s the rising sun – a symbolic sun – marking the new dawn of the city, a new empire.

(On the left bank, however, is the tomb where Dido’s murdered husband lies in rest – foreshadowing the eventual doom of the city.)

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ...

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817)
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Tate (c/o artuk.org)

Here we have Turner’s representation of the dramatic conclusion to Carthage – a woman weeps on the steps, there is a chaos of armaments in the foreground and a snake coiled in the flowers on the left. And look at the sun: central (Claudian), but setting, symbolically. What is incredible though is how Turner has painted it: it’s a solid entity, literally standing out from the canvas.

Turner - Decline - sun Turner - Decline - sun 2

Now this wasn’t the first time Turner had presented such a ‘solid’ sun. If we go back to 1803, we can see the obvious influence of Claude in “Festival of the Opening of the Vintage of Macon” – it really is an homage to Claude – which combines a scene from  Turner’s recent visit to France with a view of the Thames from Richmond Hill.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon, France

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Mâcon, France (1803)
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Museums Sheffield c/o artuk.org

Here Turner makes us look at the sun, not that it’s easy to look at, it’s so extraordinarily bright. Turner paints our very experience of trying to look at the sun – that we blin away, unable look at it directly. Moreover, and I haven’t a close-up I’m afraid, if we were to see the sun as it is painted, we’d see that it’s shapeless; broken in two, there is a small white section in the upper patch pained in three portions: a dab, a wipe and a smooth flat – and it is this white section that creates the brilliance, forcing our eye out towards the tonal light and tinted clouds. Turner painted this just two years after William Herschel’s lecture at the Royal Society in which he argued that the sun was at the centre of the solar system, a “physical entity” with “openings, shallows, ridges, nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores.” It caused a sensation.

Turner manages to combine both the visual experience and the scientific actuality. 

Another extraordinary portrayal of the sun by Turner: 

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (exhibited 1812; Tate)

Amidst the vortex of clouds and stormy weather, people fleeing and the struggling soldiers as Hannibal leads the army back to Italy through the Alpine pass (can you see the elephant?) – nature is the dominating element. And just look at the sun as Turner paints it here –

Turner- Hannibal's Sun

there is none of the brilliant light we experienced in the previous example; here the sun is solid – echoing Herschel’s Royal Society lecture thesis that the sun was “a solid globe of unignited matter”.

Turner, then, is portraying the sun – and I think the idea of portraiture here is useful – in different ways – the symbolism (pathetic fallacy?) of the rising or setting sun; the experience of the sun as we try to (not) look at its brightness and then the scientific ideas about the sun. There’s another aspect we should also mention: the mythological sun, for example in

Apollo and Python exhibited 1811 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Apollo and Python (exhibited 1811, Tate)

The “Hymn to Apollo” by the Greek poet Callimacchus recounts the sun god Apollo’s quest to build a temple for his oracle at Delphi, which first necessitated that he overcome the giant dragon, Python, which lived nearby. Turner interprets Apollo’s slaughter of the creature as a conquest of good over evil. He shows it, in pictorial terms, as the triumph of light over darkness. [Tate website]

Turner - Apollo

More than that though, we might also recognise that Apollo was the sun god and the god of the arts – often depicted on Mount Olympus with the Muses – combining and deepening the association of sun/light and art/painting; even perhaps alluding to the role of the artist in society. 

Another mythical aspect of the sun is presented in

Turner - Ulysses deriding Polyphemus

Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey  (1829, National Gallery)

It’s a painting we’ll come back to later, but for now – look into the sun – what do you see? 

Turner - Ulysses - sun

Are they the four horses of the Sun god’s chariot bringing the dawn sun up on the horizon? 

The sun for Turner, then, was packed with allusions, meanings and reference points, so when in 1819 he went to Italy for the first time and discovered the brilliant, radiant light that Claude himself worked in, then everything becomes haloed and golden. 

The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl exhibited 1823 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl (exhibited 1823; Tate)

That trip to Italy might be seen as a turning point in the artist’s work as the 1820s paintings become ever more experimental in terms of sun/ light and colour.

“Turner’s preoccupation… was now with the problem of the integration of high colour with architectural form and space. He had never seen architecture anything like that which he walked around, savoured and drew in Rome. Nor had he seen light quite as clear as the light he saw there. The 1819/20 visit to Italy changed his life, and changed his art” (James Hamilton, p.205)

Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia exhibited 1820 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia (exhibited 1820; Tate)

Turner was forty-two years old, and at the height of his powers, when he first visited Rome. The city was filled with associations with the subjects from classical mythology which Turner dramatised in his work. On his return home, Turner painted this sweeping view from the Vatican loggia, across St Peter’s Square towards the Abruzzi hills. It embraces all that Rome meant to him as the historic centre, first of the Roman Empire, then of its successor, the Christian Church, and then of the great artists of the Renaissance – crowned by Raphael, who stands in the foreground. (Tate website; see the extended catalogue notes:http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-rome-from-the-vatican-raffaelle-accompanied-by-la-fornarina-preparing-his-pictures-n00503 ).

3. Summer, 1827

East Cowes Castle from the East 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

East Cowes Castle from the East (1827; Tate)

So, let us come to 1827, when JMW Turner seems to have been having a rare ol’ time of it. In the Summer he went and stayed at East Cowes Castle – home to his friend the architect John Nash – where there were music parties, picnics and outings – many of which Turner captured in a flurry of on-the-scene sketches in chalk, pen and ink (see Tate website: http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=Turner+East+Cowes ).

East Cowes Castle: The Library, with a Harp Recital 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

East Cowes Castle: The Library, with a Harp Recital (1827; Tate)

But the central event of the summer was the Regatta: 

East Cowes Castle, the Seat of J. Nash, Esq.; the Regatta Starting for their Moorings exhibited 1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

East Cowes Castle, the Seat of J. Nash, Esq.; the Regatta Starting for their Moorings
(exhibited 1828; V&A collection)

Immediately one sees the ‘translation’ of Claude to the Isle of Wight, the framing device of the trees and ships’ sails, the tonal harmony of the hues and in particular that brilliant early morning sunshine streaming down towards us here in the foreground. We seem to be sitting in a boat on the water ourselves, looking at the scene around us; and it seems that Turner did go out, sitting on the decks of boats, sketching en plein air. The art critic John Ruskin would note: “the unity of tone of the picture is one of the finest things that Turner has ever done” (see http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O80862/east-cowes-castle-oil-painting-turner-joseph-mallord/ )

And if Turner’s summer was full of the social whirl at East Cowes Castle, then he clearly couldn’t get enough of it for come September he was in Sussex at Petworth House (it’s worth exploring: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house-and-park ). 

Petworth House from the Lake, with Figures 1825-7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Petworth House from the Lake, with Figures (1827; Tate)

Petworth House, under Lord Egremont, was certainly ‘bohemian’ : “…in 1813, Lord Blessington reported that ‘Nothing will convince Lady Spenser that Lord Egremont has not forty-three Children, who all live in the House with him and their respective Mothers; [and] that the latter are usually kept in the background but when any quarrels arise, which few days apss without, each mother takes part with her Progeny, bursts into the drawing room, fights with each other, Lord E., his children, and, I believe, the Company, and makes scenes worthy of Billingsgate or a Madhouse'” (quoted in “Turner At Petworth: Painter and Patron” (Tate publishing, p.18).

Phillips, Thomas, 1770-1845; George O'Brien Wyndham (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont, in the North Gallery, Petworth

George O’Brien Wyndham (1751–1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont, in the North Gallery, Petworth (posthumous) by Thomas Phillips (1770–1845) [1839; National Trust, Petworth House; c/o artuk.org]

James Hamilton (p.229) describes: “Artists, writers, politicians, and men and women of an entertaining character came and went erratically at Petworth, singly or in flocks, arriving and taking off again like starlings. This is precisely how [Lord] Egremont liked it. …Although the house ‘wants modern comforts, and the servants are rustic and uncouth,’ as [the diplomat Charles] Fulke Greville put it, Egremont took his hospitality seriously. Balls for the county and dinners for the tenants were regular events, as were performances by local military bands in the Gallery or a quartet in the dining room.”

John Constable called the house “Liberty Hall”.

And ‘the company’ certainly seem very involved and interested in the arts – Lord Egremont himself was obviously a great collector generally, and an early collector of Turner’s work – building on the Old Masters collections of his predecessors with works by contemporary, living artists and sculptors.

Phillips, Thomas, 1770-1845; Elizabeth Iliffe (1769-1822), Countess of Egremont

Elizabeth Iliffe (1769–1822), Countess of Egremont by Thomas Phillips (1770–1845)
(1797; National Trust, Petworth House; c/o artuk.org)

In the 1780s, Lord Egremont lived with Elizabeth Iliffe, usually known as Mrs Wyndham; their first child was born in 1787, but they weren’t actually married until 1801 – only to separate two years later. However, Mrs Wyndham – the Countess of Egremont – also took “great delight” in painting, “devoting much of her time to it” according to Joseph Farington (Tate catalogue, p.16) – moreover, she also seems to have been a collector, acquiring two of the three paintings by William Blake now in the Petworth collection (Tate catalogue, p.47).

NB: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/11/turners-silent-partner-elizabeth-iliffe

NB: https://www.waterstones.com/book/elizabeth-ilive-egremonts-countess/sheila-haines/leigh-lawson/9781999742102

Again, Turner captures much of this in on-the-spot sketches, many of which are on the Tate website:  http://www.tate.org.uk/search?q=Turner Petworth House&type=artwork&page=1 

Petworth House:Figures in the White Library, possibly Lord Egremont 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Petworth House:Figures in the White Library, possibly Lord Egremont (1827; Tate)

The Billiard Players 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Billiard Players (1827; Tate)

Music in the White Library 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Music in the White Library (1827; Tate)

It’s also clear from the sketches that Turner was enamoured with the beautiful young ladies, and they with him (numerous bedroom scenes with rumpled sheets and pillows!).

The Somerset Room: Looking into the Square Dining Room and beyond to the Grand Staircase 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Somerset Room: Looking into the Square Dining Room and beyond to the Grand Staircase (1827; Tate)

More importantly, this ‘community’ discussed, appreciated and practiced art – whether as amateurs or professionals – again, we see this in a number of the sketches.  The House was (is) filled with art, and guests could take pictures to their own rooms for private study.

A Lady in a Black Silk Dress Seated on a Pink Sofa 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

A Lady in a Black Silk Dress Seated on a Pink Sofa (1827; Tate)

Two Artists in the Old Library: Washington Allston's Picture, 'Jacob's Dream', Hanging over the Fireplace ('The Artist and the Amateur') 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Two Artists in the Old Library: Washington Allston’s Picture, ‘Jacob’s Dream’, Hanging over the Fireplace (‘The Artist and the Amateur’) (1827; Tate)

Watteau Study by Fresnoy's Rules exhibited 1831 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules (exhibited 1831; Tate)

‘White, when it shines with unstained lustre clear,
May bear an object back, or bring it near.’
(Fresnoy’s Art of Painting)
The quotation comes from William Mason’s translation of Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy’s De Arte Graphica, first published with annotations by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1783 and re-issued in The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, edited by Edmond Malone, 1797. Turner illustrates this theory with a tribute to Watteau… [and the painting] has an iconographic link with Petworth in that the scene of an artist at work in a room with a number of bystanders is most clearly paralleled among the Petworth body-colours on blue paper, though these are, of course, contemporary scenes.

See Tate catalogue entry: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-watteau-study-by-fresnoys-rules-n00514

The Artist and his Admirers 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Artist and his Admirers (1827; Tate)

It could be an art ‘lesson’; it could be the artist ‘entertaining the ladies’ – but we are in the Old Library here, which Lord Egremont allowed Turner to use as his studio – he often locked the door so no-one could disturb him (save Egremont himself). But it’s that huge window that takes us back to our main theme: light. And the sketches reveal Turner’s experiments with capturing a representation of light itself, firstly from inside the house: from the subtle morning light: 

At Petworth: Morning Light through the Windows 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

At Petworth: Morning Light through the Windows (1827; Tate)

To the sharpness of a shaft of strong brilliant sunlight:

Sunlight and Figures in the White Library 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sunlight and Figures in the White Library (1827; Tate)

To the warm glows of the after-dinner drawing room: 

Fire-Light and Lamp-Light 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Fire-Light and Lamp-Light (1827; Tate)

But it’s when Turner sketches outside – in the parklands of the Petworth estate, that sunlight and colour come – radically –  to the fore:

Sunset across the Park from the Terrace of Petworth House 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sunset across the Park from the Terrace of Petworth House (1827; Tate)


Turner - Petworth close 3

And it’s the sun that comes to dominate a series of paintings commissioned from Turner by Lord Egremont for the Carved Room, where there hung portraits – fabulously, but a bit dull – and Turner could certainly brighten it up. James Hamilton writes (p.230) “It was in spirit of homage to the sun that Turner chose the colours he did for these paintings, whose format mirrored the extended horizon visible from the windows…”

It’s best to view these on the Petworth website – from which I can’t download – by these are from Tate and artuk.org as examples:

Petworth Park: Tillington Church in the Distance c.1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Petworth Park: Tillington Church in the Distance (c.1828; Tate), close-ups:


The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, a Stag Drinking c.1829 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, a Stag Drinking (c.1829; Tate)

and one of Turner’s preparatory sketches:

The Lake, Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study c.1827-8 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Lake, Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study (c.1827–8; Tate)

The sun. light and colour are becoming emphatically entwined here in the 1827 sketches, watercolours and Petworth oils; but this is still not intense enough for Turner and when he returns to Italy in 1828-9 we can feel his admiration and awe as the sun explodes into blinding heat and firework colours. 

4. Pictures from Italy

“Looking afresh at the Roman paintings of 1828… [Turner’s] clear intention [is] to break new ground… in Claude’s own city” (Hamilton, p.237)

Turner - Regulus 1

Regulus (1828, reworked 1837; Tate)

Regulus was a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians. They sent him back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned to Carthage, having failed his mission, he was punished by having his eyelids removed. He was then kept in a darkened room for days before being taken out into the Mediterranean sun. Turner’s blinding, light-filled canvas makes manifest Regulus’s plight.

Turner first exhibited this painting in Rome in 1828. His audience would have recognised its echoes of a famous seaport by the seventeenth-century painter, Claude Lorrain, in the Uffizzi gallery in Florence. Turner clearly wanted to show himself as heir to the tradition of landscape painting begun by Claude. (Tate website)

As the Tate notes, Regulus was re-worked by Turner and Hamilton says that the painting as we see it today is far from the original version. He goes on to quote one of its first viewers…

Turner - Regulus 2

“The painting was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in its fiery state…” (Sir John Gilbert, 1895).

Turner - Regulus 3

Turner is making us experience the agony of Regulus with his eyelids removed and the sun glaring down, light reflecting and bouncing off the buildings and the water attacking the eye like knives. “In Regulus, Claude screams, as indeed did Regulus” (Hamilton, p.237).

In his book “Chasing the Sun” (p.433), Richard Cohen notes how Turner, painting the sun white – as in white-hot – “seemed to understand what astronauts and space cameras have only recently confirmed – that although the midday sun seems yellow to us, it is actually white.”


If Turner intended to represent the full power of the sun here, then the painting he made on his return from Italy for that year’s Royal Academy exhibition, reveals his investigations of sunlight dividing into colour. 

Turner - Ulysses deriding Polyphemus

Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey (1829, National Gallery)

Inspired by Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer, this is far more than an illustration to the Odyssey; it’s an essay on light and colour – see the rays of the sun reaching up into the sky, transitioning into brilliant, thickly painted colour. The sun itself is white light – almost impossible to look at – and remember the rearing horses drawing the chariot of the sun god announcing dawn – it’s like a lighthouse, radiating across the painting.

Not that everyone approved – one newspaper critic in 1829 wrote of “colour gone mad – positive vermilion, positive indigo, and all the most glaring tints of green, yellow and purple contend for mastery of the canvas, with al the vehement contrasts of a kaleidoscope…” [reference?].

They just didn’t ‘get’ Turner’s scientific and painterly explorations of light and colour. 

We’ve already mentioned Herschel’s lecture on the sun that so intrigued Turner; he was also in contact with scientists such as Humphrey Davy, Charles Babbage and Michael Faraday for at that time the Royal Academy was at Somerset House, just along the corridors from the Royal Society – artists and scientists would regularly come in to each others lectures and get to know each other.

For the most part of course,  these were all men, so when the physicist Mary Somerville prepared a paper on “The Magnetic Power of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” in February 1826, it had to be read to the Royal Society audience by her husband William Somerville. Turner knew them both well and he was keenly interested in Mary’s thesis – there’s a scene in Mike Leigh’s film “Mr Turner” in which the scientist demonstrated her ideas at Turner’s house – and it’s due to her experiments that, in Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, Turner paints with tones of pale violet in the sky. The ship we see is sailing eastwards, so we are looking north towards the sky – and Mary Somerville’s work showed that the colour violet, from the end of the rainbow spectrum, had the power to magnetise a needle and make it point due north.

And can you see Polyphemus, the Cyclops? (He’s morphed into the top of the mountain to the left – “the lone mountain’s monstrous growth” as Pope describes).

Turner combines ancient myth with extremely modern science, not that Turner was a scientist – he observed and scrutinised the visual world, but was very aware that this was to do with his role as a painter – and that the artist had to be recognised as having professional credibility as an artist.  

“Light is… colour” declared Turner in one of his Royal Academy lectures, “and shadow the privation of [light and colour]… The science of art… is colouring, not colour. And here we are left by theory, and there we ought to be left, for the working of genius or the exercise of talent”. That is, science can only take us so far with material facts, then it’s up to the artist.   

Only the artist, then, can bring in myth, history and religion as well as science; only the artist could portray the Archangel Gabriel with his flaming sword on Judgment Day: 

The Angel Standing in the Sun exhibited 1846 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Angel Standing in the Sun (exhibited 1846; Tate)

standing amidst the flames of the sun. In the foreground we see scenes from the Old Testament – Adam and Eve weeping over the body of Abel to the left, on the right Judith stands over the beheaded Holofernes.

And if we go in close to look at the paint itself:

Turner - Angel closeupTurner - Angel - closeup 1Turner - Angel closeup 2

Sun/light… colour…. texture: and so we return to the painting we saw right at the start, the room with the light cascading through the window. 

5. Epilogue: A Room Made of Light

Turner - Interior 1

We noted at the beginning that not only did Turner re-work this painting, but that there is disagreement as to where it actually depicts. The art-writer John Gage seemed (back in 1987) fairly certain it’s a Petworth painting. He writes:

“When [Lord] Egremont died in November 1837, Turner was deeply affected. He never returned to Petworth except for the Earl’s funeral ten days later, an occasion of great pomp and solemnity which the painter wanted to commemorate in a pair of canvases which, for some reason, he left unfinished. In the first a group of mourning figures seem to whisper together in a sombre interior… in the second picture, that interior has been transformed by light. The mourners have left and Egremont’s coffin stands open and empty. The Earl’s presence is marked only by the burst if blinding light through the central archway which has scattered the splendid furnishing into confusion while – and this is the most poignant and most Turnerian touch of all – one of the many dogs who were Egremont’s constant companions raises himself in a sudden movement, looks up, and howls” [Gage, 1987].

Read the image as you will, what is certain is that this sunlight is powerful, it is light; it is colour, it’s active – and strong enough to move furniture; it stands for life itself. 

And whilst it may be apocryphal, it is said that sometime in the weeks before he died, Turner declared: “the sun is God”. 

On the 18th December 1851… “just before 9 o’clock in the morning the clouds began to break and the sun came through and filled Turner’s bedroom and shone directly and brilliantly upon him… at ten o’clock, in silence, he died” (Hamilton, p.310).

Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sun Setting over a Lake (c.1840; Tate)



Peter Ackroyd: Turner (2006, Vintage)

Richard Cohen: Chasing the Sun (2011, Simon & Schuster)

James Hamilton: Turner – A Life (1997, Hodder & Stoughton)

Tate Gallery: Turner at Petworth – Painter and Patron (1989, Tate)

“Mr Turner” film by Mike Leigh (DVD)