An exhibition of nineteenth-century marine paintings would not normally be the first port of call for my eye, one more accustomed to the sophistication of modernist primitivism and roughness. Canvases of yellow, varnished vessels on glass-blue seas – passing ships in the day – can blend into their own sea of anonymous repetition. By the time one reaches the second section of this remarkable exhibition, though, such a lazily prejudiced approach is forcibly ejected from one’s mind.
In the large and high exhibition hall at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), the curators have created a transparent maze of rooms which directs the viewer chronologically through J.M.W. Turner’s (1775-1851) career. While it is remarkable enough that this is the first ever full-scale examination of Turner’s creative engagement with the sea, an opportunity to witness briskly his development of painting style is a latent but signal bonus.
From the early rooms – where the master is finding his own voice and language while giving a (provisional) nod to the tradition of the genre, to the last rooms where some of the works (unfinished or not) could almost slot effortlessly into an exhibition of abstract work – texture, composition, scale and atmosphere bombard the sensitive viewer. I was lucky enough to be let in before the public and, at times, it was as if I was stranded in a vortex of temperamental breakers, proud vessels and daunting skies threatening to overcome me from all sides.
The highlights in this exhibition can hardly be accidentally overlooked: the (second version of the royally commissioned) Battle of Trafalgar (1823-24) dominates an entire wall, and a mournful, ghostly The Fighting Temeraire (1839) needs no introduction. The hang at the NMM allows close contact, often at eye level, with these grand but oddly informal paintings. Examining Turner’s unpredictable impasto and moody brush-strokes and comparing them to van de Velde, Gainsborough and Constable (all on show) provides a helpful contextualizing benchmark. The collection of prints and watercolours, in their own separate section, makes visible the process of Turner’s draughtsmanship without the noise of oil. Frighteningly delicate mezzotints almost defy the genre and give further (unneeded but welcome) testament to Turner’s confidence and versatility.
The final two rooms uncover a man who, even in his sixties and seventies, almost quite literally did not stop drawing, painting, innovating and, above all, looking. The enthusiasm to develop his vision is exemplified by Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45). In a circumvention characteristic of fragmented modernity, Turner disposes of the need to distinguish between finished and unfinished work.
The most natural instinct at the end of this exhibition is to start again and re-examine the early output in light of the journey one has undertaken through the labyrinthine layout. I left the exhibition wondering how these amazing and varied works would look alongside some of the later British masters of the sea: inter alia Alfred Wallis, Joan Eardley, and Maggi Hambling…
Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld
Turner and the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich until the 21st April 2014.