JMW Turner seems to have decided to go and just enjoy himself in the Summer of 1827 with an extended holiday, first on the Isle of Wight and then in Sussex. Yet even as he had a rare ol’ time with music, walks, discussions and the jolly company of friends, he was ever the artist, ever exploring the representations of sunlight and colour on paper and canvas.
On the Isle of Wight he 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 – and it’s really worth exploring these via the Tate website – in pen, pencil, chalks and watercolour; some views of the castle, others scenes of a party.
Turner clearly had his sketchbook with him at all times, and these are quick, rapid sketches giving the wonderful sense of him ‘in the moment’, enjoying everything that’s going on around him. and I’m particularly intrigued by –
suggesting a picnic out in the Castle grounds, the summer sunshine is strong, some people are strolling, or resting under the shade of a tree whilst others are dancing? playing catch? cricket?!
But the central event of the summer was the annual Regatta.
This oil sketch – probably painted en plein air, Turner sitting in a boat – is a striking reminder of his “vision” at this time; the Claudian inspiration in the composition, the rough white texture of the sun at the centre of the canvas, the infusion of pastel colours, yellows, pinks and pale violets infusing the air and the reflections on the water. The sketch would later resolve itself into an exhibition painting:
The painting is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s full title, given in the RA catalogue 1828, was ‘East Cowes Castle, the Seat of John Nash, Esq.; the Regatta Starting for their Moorings’ and John Ruskin gave it the utmost praise in Modern Painters, noting that ‘Intensity of repose is the great aim throughout, and the unity of tone of the picture is one of the finest things that Turner has ever done’, and concluding that it is ‘not only a piece of the most refined truth … but, to my mind, one of the highest pieces of intellectual art existing’.
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.
Petworth House from the Lake, with Figures (1827; Tate)
James Hamilton (Turner: A Life, 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.”
Again, Turner captures much of this in on-the-spot sketches, many of which are on the Tate website and fascinating to look through as they offer such an insight into the atmosphere of art, music and conversation.
Petworth House:Figures in the White Library, possibly Lord Egremont (1827; Tate) and The Billiard Players (1827; Tate)
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!).
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 even pictures to their own rooms for private study.
A Lady in a Black Silk Dress Seated on a Pink Sofa (1827; Tate)
Two Artists in the Old Library (The Artist and the Amateur) and The Artist and his Admirers [both 1827; Tate]
It could be an art ‘lesson’; it could be the artist ‘entertaining the ladies’ – certainly it reveals that ‘art making’ was as much of the texture of life at Petworth as the social life. And 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. So many of these sketches reveal Turner’s experiments with capturing a representation of light itself, firstly from inside the house: from the subtle morning light to the sharpness of a shaft of strong, brilliant sunlight:
At Petworth: Morning Light through the Windows (1827; Tate) and Sunlight and Figures in the White Library (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; Tate)
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…”
The Lake, Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study (c.1827–8; Tate)
In 1828 Turner would go on his second trip to Italy where his experience of Venice would further concentrate these painterly experiments in the representation of sun, light and colour, but it is surely the freedom, the social joy of this bohemian summer at Petworth House that liberates the increasingly experimental painterly ideas that would last the rest of his life.
At the beginning of our sojourn into the art of JMW Turner we looked at his unfinished 1830 painting “Interior of a Great House”:
which is now actually associated with East Cowes Castle (see the Tate catalogue entry). However, back in 1987, the art-writer John Gage seemed fairly certain it was a Petworth picture:
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 …it’s a sombre interior, an interior transformed by light… The mourner have left and Egremont’s coffin stands open and empty. The Earl’s presence is marked only by a burst of blinding light through the central archway which has scattered the splendid furniture into confusion while – and this is the most poignant and 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 [John Gage: Turner – A Wonderful Turn of Mind, 1987].
Read the image as you will, what is certain is that this sunlight has power; it is light, it is colour, it is active; strong enough to move furniture.
It stands for life itself.
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 10 o’clock, in silence, he died” (Hamilton, p.310).
Next week we’ll look at Turner’s peer and rival, John Constable.
All the Colours of the Sun (6)
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