Protected: The Ancients (4): from Visions to Realities.

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Protected: The Ancients (3): To Shoreham!

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Protected: The Ancients (2) – Brotherhood

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The Romantics Return: William Blake on the BBC

So absolutely glorious to hear the two versions of “Jerusalem” at the Proms last evening – not only Hubert Parry’s traditional version, but Errolyn Warren’s delicious re-visioning “Jerusalem – our clouded hills” in which she

has added a blues feeling and African rhythm.

Subtitled ‘our clouded hills’, her piece is dedicated to the Windrush generation and encourages a communion of Commonwealth nations…

(the BBC Last Night of the Proms 2020 is available on i-player for the next month).

It made me turn to the Blake Archive to look up Blake’s designs for Jerusalem created between 1804-1820, including this dramatic title page:

Jerusalem – The Emanation of the Giant Albion (Yale Centre for British Art).

With more detail on the website, the Tate summarises the complex poem:

In Jerusalem, Albion (England) is infected with a ‘soul disease’ and her ‘mountains run with blood’ as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars. Religion exists only to help monarchy and clergy exploit the lower classes. Greed and war have obscured the true message of religion. However, if Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem, the story goes, then all humanity will once again be bound together with love.


And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

Intriguingly, “Jerusalem” – the song we all know, with its music written by Hubert Parry and its orchestration by Edward Elgar – is actually from Blake’s poem “Milton” in which he recalls the possibility that Jesus had once travelled to England (Glastonbury) with Joseph of Arimathea.

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

If so, and the dark satanic mills of Blake’s contemporary world – with its Enlightenment science and industrial rationalism – were obscuring the spiritual knowledge and perceptive vision that Heaven was once here, then

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.


It’s that ‘Mental Fight’ that is so important here – the power of art, poetry, the creative imagination – and takes us to Simon Schama’s new series The Romantics and Us in which (in part one, “Passions of the People”) William Blake also makes a significant appearance as “one of the founding fathers of Romanticism”.

Living in a “city growing fat with the profits of Empire” where everyday he saw the extremes of wealth and destitution, Blake was, in Schama’s (really quite emotional tone) “always reaching for that bit of Heaven as he sees everybody as potentially wonderful. That’s his adorable thing… that’s how he sees the world even in the middle of… filthy, cruel, ferocious meat-grinder London.”

I’d highly recommend watching it as Testament brings home the relevance of Blake today and Simon Schama marks the passions of William Blake, Eugene Gericault, Mary Wollstonecraft and others and the impact they’ve had on our subsequent histories.


Have we, in 2020, entered a new Romantic Age?

Orc – a vigorous youth, surrounded by the fires of revolutionary passion – symbolises the spirit of rebellion and the love of freedom [Tate].


Protected: The Ancients (1): Beginnings

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John Constable and “Hadleigh Castle”

Constable, John; Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night; Yale Center for British Art;

“Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night” was painted by John Constable (1776-1837) for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1829. It’s one of his ‘six-footers’, a size intended to not only raise his own profile but that of landscape painting. As John Rothenstein writes in An Introduction to English Painting: “Like Turner, [Constable] thought of landscape as the equal of history painting; indeed, as a kind of history painting.” Yet, unlike Turner, Constable’s work is also full of very autobiography, memory and personal emotion.


Hadleigh Castle; a 13th century ruin on the Essex Coast, its remaining twin towers have fallen into decay. In the painting we can see out to the Thames estuary as Constable noted in a letter: [the] castle… commands a view of the Kent hills, the nore and north foreland & look[s] many miles to the sea. The sky is full of dark dramatic clouds slowly clearing away to allow rays of the morning’s early sun to break through. In turn the land itself is made up of shadowed areas and light patches – and it’s in the light areas that we have scenes of the cow-man with his cattle and a shepherd walking along with his collie-dog.

It’s very much a picture of “England” – from the ancient historic castle to the Thames Estuary and sea trade, from rural workers to the ever changing weather.

Like Turner, Constable was inspired by the work of Claude Lorrain and recognised that sky and weather were essential elements in the ‘feel’ and ‘meaning’ of landscape painting.

Though if you are going to ‘translate’ Claude to the British landscape, then his perfect blue skies are not going to come along very often; if you look through Constable’s work via it’s all clouds, storm and rainbows.

It is also important to recognise what Constable doesn’t paint. This was a particularly dramatic period in British social and political life and part of this newly germinating interest in landscape was because of both national and international politics. On the international side of things Britain was in the midst and aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars – Britain was at war with France on and off from 1793 – 1815 – which meant artists couldn’t travel to the continent on the one hand; this emphasised the landscape of the home country: Britain was under threat and so artists reflected this new interest in the homeland that might be soon-over-run by Napoleon in making drawings, paintings and etchings of scenes up and down the country. On the national side of things, the Napoleonic Wars and in particular the end of them, caused crisis in the countryside. As the markets collapsed because imports were cheaper, so farmers increased their claims on the land: the enclosure acts, which had already been increasing since the 1750s, meant that common land and village fields were being privatised and that 500 years of traditional ways of rural life were being destroyed. Alongside all this, new mechanisation – from seed drills to threshing machines – was coming into play. It’s from the end of the Napoleonic wars all through to the 1830s that workers were burning hayricks, destroying machinery and threatening anarchy in the countryside.

Whilst this is never represented or confronted in Constable’s work, it must affect some of the ways we see his paintings.


Constable, John; John Constable; National Portrait Gallery, London;

Constable was born on 11th June 1776, probably in Flatford Mill, the fourth of six children, to Ann and Golding Constable – a prosperous family who owned mills, farmland and a large imposing three-storey house. If he had been a good student he would have trained for the Church, instead after leaving school he entered the family business and took over the mill on Bergholt Common; yet what he wanted to do was become a painter – taking he easel and oil paints out into the fields to paint alongside his friend, amateur artists John Dunthorne.

In 1799 he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. However, he was not a fan: the Schools trained new artists to paint like the old artists before them; their paintings should look like what they were expected to look like; what Constable realised was that none of these artists had really looked at nature – they were painting nature at second hand – and had never looked at the individual character of a tree or the way the sunlight actually falls across the land. And what happens over the next few years becomes extremely important: he went out sketching – not with pencil – but in oil paints – around the Suffolk countryside. Whilst this was not revolutionary in itself, what we’ll see happening is that Constable’s “finished” works start taking on the lightness of colour and the spontaneity of the sketches; that freshness that captures the daylight.

Flatford Mill (1816) for example is truly extraordinary in terms of portraying the freshness of the day:

Constable, John; Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’); Tate;

Constable would have worked from his summer sketches in Suffolk and then spent the autumn and spring in his London studio getting this ready for the RA exhibition. Look at how unique these trees are – they have their own character – even as they provide the Claudean framing device; the sky has a body of cloud and, throughout, there are little incidents: from the horse being uncoupled from the barge so that it can go under a footbridge, then along the path to the man and the dog. We have gorgeous sweeps of path and river running throughout the picture; these passages of light and shade and even just looking at the picture one seems to be able to feel the fresh air.

As a biographical note, we should say that this year, 1816, is when Constable married Maria Bicknell after a difficult five-year courtship – the marriage was opposed by her grandfather – but the marriage was a happy one (seven children!).

Returning to the landscapes, the same effect of brilliant shining fresh air comes from looking at The Haywain – Constable’s 1821 six-footer.

The Hay Wain John Constable (1776–1837) The National Gallery, London

It’s a picture that we now know perhaps too well – it’s on everything – but this was a radical painting in its day – much misunderstood by the RA connoisseurs who preferred their paintings brown and old-looking. By contrast, when it was shown at the Salon exhibition in Paris there was huge enthusiasm and became the catalyst for a new realism in French art – from Delacroix through to the Barbizon School and Courbet.

And what’s particularly innovative here is the way Constable uses pure white paint – there’s a texture – to create the “freshness” and “dewiness” of the light on the water and leaves – what came to be critically described as ‘Constable Snow’.

If the outdoor sketching is one intrinsic element to Constable’s art in order to get this bright fresh effect, then his fascination with clouds is the next strongest development: already we can see they have appeared in Flatford Mill and here in the Haywain, and it’s about now, 1821 that he begins painting cloudy skies on a daily basis – mostly up on Hampstead Hill – making notes as to the time, place, direction of the wind even on the back of the sketches.

Constable, John; Study of Cirrus Clouds; Paintings Collection;

Many of the scholars suggest The Haywain is the absolute pinnacle of Constable’s art – but I think it might be The Cornfield:

Constable, John; The Cornfield; The National Gallery, London;

Here everything comes together: we have the Claudian framing and depth; we have the autobiographical associations as Constable remembers his boyhood in Suffolk – this is the path along which he went to school (is this a self-portrait, drinking from the river?); we have the working landscape with the sheep and the farmers; the passages of light and shade and this glorious bright but cloudy sky.

We might even suggest there is more to it: the boy in the foreground is childhood, the men at the edge of the field are adults and, right in the centre is a church – we are led, along this pathway, from birth to death (perhaps).


How then do we get from bright Suffolk pastures to stormy Hadleigh Castle?

Constable, John; Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night; Yale Center for British Art;

It’s so interesting to see these two sketches in comparison with the final painting – dramatic enough in itself. The sketches though are a flurry, a fury of paint, almost apocalyptic. And this might the result of what was for Constable a stormy, conflicted year: his wife Maria died and he was – at last – made a Royal Academician.

In comparisons with the other work we have looked at even the exhibition painting seems ‘rough’ and ‘unfinished’, it remains much closer to the sketches rather than having been ‘worked up’ and it is because of this that it seems to contain the emotional act of “seeing” – the thoughts, memories and personal experiences that are stirred by the sight of a ruined castle on the very edge of the land. But note that the tide is incoming, that there are bright rays of sunlight on the horizon; there is hope in the turmoil of life and death.


Let’s end though with a much brighter painting, a sketch from 1821 that wouldn’t be out of place at an Impressionist exhibition sixty years later:

Constable, John; Study of Tree Trunks; Paintings Collection;

John Constable and Hadleigh Castle

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There will be a little break next week and then September will see the start a new research project: British Art Groups (1830s-1930s).

All the Colours of the Sun (6): On Holiday with Turner (Summer, 1827)

East Cowes Castle from the South-East, across the Lawn 1827 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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.

East Cowes Castle: The Library, with a Harp Recital 1827 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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 –

A ‘F?te Champ?tre’ with Figures among Trees, Probably at East Cowes Castle 1827 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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.

Sketch for ‘East Cowes Castle, the Regatta Starting for Their Moorings’ No. 2 1827 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

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.

The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, a Stag Drinking c.1829 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1984. In situ at Petworth House

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.

The Setting Sun over Petworth Park 1827 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856


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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Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856


All the Colours of the Sun (5): Light into Colour

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; Regulus; Tate;

“Regulus”, painted and exhibited in Italy in 1828 then reworked in 1837 (see Tate) is (yet another) astonishing painting in which Turner makes manifest the power of the sun. The painting we see today – as illuminated as it is – however has actually faded: “The painting was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in its fiery state…”

And its subject is as harsh as the glare. As the Tate tells:

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 tortured by being left out in the sun with his eyelids sewn open.

In “Chasing the Sun”, Richard Cohen notes that Turner was now painting the sun white, “as in white-hot: he wanted to capture pure light”; indeed a contemporary critic saw that “the star has become a lump of white standing out like the boss of a shield.”

Meanwhile, the critic at the Spectator wrote:

Turner is just the reverse of Claude: instead of the repose of beauty – the soft serenity and mellow light of an Italian scene – here is all glare, turbulence and uneasiness. The only way to be reconciled with this picture is to look at it from as great a distance as the width of the gallery would allow, and then you will see nothing but a burst of sunlight [Tate].

And as Sam Smiles at the Tate notes: Turner is now painting “with the profound observation that the operation of light is the bedrock of vision.”

But if the sun is now a blazing white, it is also the source of colour.

Turner, as we have noted before, explored the developing scientific theories of the sun and light, and he does so with colour too (although he is never trapped by pure theory; as an artist he is always a colourist, a poet).

And there are two spectacular late paintings that stand side by side in their exploration of light, shade and colour.

Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

In “Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge” we have a great swirl of dark cloud over the shadowed foreground; to the right we can (just about) see animals in procession going to Noah’s Art which is almost dissolved in the light, a silhouette on the horizon at the centre of the picture. Meanwhile, in the lower left, is a small encampment – again barely visible, such is the drama of the situation (and the paint) – with a feeble lantern; they are the victims of this divine retribution. The middle of the painting is taken up with a blaze of light – white and yellow – the eye of the storm, God’s power. Whilst all around, in grey and blue, clouds pour down with rain over a benighted land.

And then, the morning after the night before:

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

This painting’s title is a sort of summary containing so much of what interested Turner: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis – science and theory, light and colour, great biblical dramas and the shifts of human fate and history. Here we see Moses writing Genesis in the midst of drifts of painted skies, at the centre of a globe of paint radiating with rainbow colours (the rainbow symbolising God’s new covenant with humanity). It’s an extraordinary vision as the stories of the Old Testamant are recalled. Just below Moses is a snake hanging upon a staff – the snake from the Garden Of Eden? To the right is a crowd of small figures rising up from the waters of the receding deluge, the men, women and animals that had perished in the flood. It all seems a bit grim perhaps. But this is an optimistic painting: humanity is born again in the radiance of grace – although if we see that globe as a ‘bubble’ then there is always the threat it might burst. And that snake on the staff? A shadow of the Crucifixion to come?

The association of hope with bright colours though leads us to that first part of the title: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory):

The allusion [is] to Goethe’s [book] Fahrbenlehre …Goethe’s theory of a colour-circle divided into ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ colours: the former, reds, yellows and greens, were associated by Goethe with gaiety, warmth and happiness, while the latter, blues, blue-greens and purples, were seen as productive of ‘restless, susceptible, anxious impressions’ [see Tate]

And we can certainly see this ‘psychological’ division explored by Turner in these two paintings of the deluge. He was continually curious; his paintings layered with ideas that impress themselves in texture and colour as much as subject and symbolism.

In an earlier discussion we looked briefly at

Joseph Mallord William Turner Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey 1829 Oil on canvas, 132.5 x 203 cm Turner Bequest, 1856 NG508

The sun on the horizon appears, possibly, to contain the silhouette of Apollo riding the chariot of dawn into the sky. But, now, looked at the colours of that sky. The rays of the sun are radiating lines of light – beams ranging out like the lamp of a lighthouse – as if orchestrating the blues and pinks, the yellows and oranges of sunrise.

When it was exhibited it was much criticised: “the perfection of unnatural tawdriness. In fact it may be taken as a specimen of colouring run mad – positive vermilion – positive indigo – and all the most glaring tints of green, yellow and purple contend for mastery of the canvas, with all the vehement contrasts of a kaleidoscope of Persian carpet… truth, nature and feeling are sacrificed to melodramatic effect.”

Well, I have to say, I beg to differ! (And it is fascinating to use the ‘zoom’ control available on the National Gallery website to see these colours in all their glory).

The website also mention Turner’s interest in Goethe’s theories, but we should also remember that the Royal Academy shared Somerset House with the Royal Society and it is through his contacts with scientists that Turner learnt of theories about the sun and about colour and light with people such as Humphrey Davy, Charles Babbage and Michael Faraday. He also knew Mary Somerville whose paper “The Magnetic Power of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum” had to be read at the Society in February 1826 by her husband William, as women weren’t admitted. In Mike Leigh’s film “Turner” (2014), Mary comes to Turner’s house in order to explain her ideas. And it is due to her work that, in Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, Turner paints those tones of pale violet in the sky. The ship is sailing east, so we are looking northwards and Mary Somerville’s experiments had shown that the colour violet, at the end of the rainbow spectrum, had the power to magnetize a needle and make it point due north.

The theory was eventually refuted, yet Mary’s work would continue to influence Turner’s art.


Increasingly expressive, always curious, Turner’s art is fascinating in terms of light and colour, texture and form. For the most part in this “All the Colours of the Sun” series we have focused on oil paintings. Next time, in our final discussion, we’ll look at the equally experimental and explorative watercolours Turner painted during his late-summer visits in 1827 to East Cowes Castle and Petworth House.

All The Colours of the Sun (5)

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All the Colours of the Sun (4): Paintings of Poetry and Science

On April 27th 1775, two hours of spectacular effects were seen in the skies across south-east England. It was a solar halo, described in the Annual Register of Events as “a remarkable phenomenon representing in a most beautiful manner three suns”.

It was on or around this date that JMW Turner was born.


Up to now we’ve looked at the influence of Claude on Turner, and how Turner ‘translated’ that influence to the British landscape. Here we’ll look closely at a number of Turner’s paintings to explore his representations of the sun and sunlight, taking us from literature to science and back again, and from pure white to brilliant colour.

Two key references for this exploration are:

James Hamilton’s “Turner – A Life” (Sceptre, 1997) and

Richard Cohen’s “Chasing the Sun” (Simon & Schuster, 2010)


As we’ve noted previously, the Napoleonic Wars limited travel to Europe. However, there was a break of fourteen months – The Peace of Amiens (1802) – which allowed Turner to visit France, a trip that is remembered in

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon, France; Museums Sheffield;

Very much an homage to Claude and, on the surface, a ‘romantic’ scene of French life, it is also a depiction of the River Thames seen from Richmond Hill (in fact seen from the back door of Joshua Reynolds’ house; see also “England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday” [1819; Tate]. Even more interestingly, this is the first time Turner makes us look directly at the sun in one of his paintings: “by the artist’s subtle trickery, the eye cannot stand it for long, as it never can stand looking at the sun in reality”, said one critic. And the closer in one looks, one sees that Turner has painted the sun as a small white disc – it’s the first time he has painted it as a solid entity, and it comes just two years after William Herschel’s sensational lecture on the sun: that it stood at the centre of the solar system as a “physical entity” with “openings, ridges, nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores.”

This connection of Turner’s paintings with Herschel’s theories is focused in Hamilton’s biography, and there’s an instructive review article on the Guardian website by Mark Brown: “Turner used science to paint the Sun” (2013).

Starting at the centre the white light of the sun expands out, shimmering in the blue sky, clean and bright – an effect replicated in a picture painted after Turner’s first trip to Italy, real Claudian country:

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl; Tate;

There is such a magical glow here; that golden landscape. Indeed it’s a scene that entranced Turner and there are numerous depictions in his sketchbooks. What particularly attracted him was the interconnection of landscape, history and mythology: this is where the Greeks had first established a colony in Italy, where Sybil had lived and where Apollo had offered her eternal life in exchange for her love. Knowledge and imagination fuse together here.

I really do think it’s this layering of fact and story that makes Turner’s paintings so continually fascinating – and that’s before we even mention the alchemy of paint: colour and texture.

Let’s take a very different scene:

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; Sun rising through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish; The National Gallery, London;

I’m intrigued by this word “vapour” in the title. Turner makes “vapour” a thing, articulating the existence and palpability of the stuff, the air, through which the sun is rising. And note how, in contrast to the clear light and blue skies of the previous paintings we’ve looked at above, here the light is getting ‘stuck’ as it tries to move through the vapour. So we see the yellow sunlight merging with the grey of the clouds. And there’s a texture here. The sunlight is ‘sooty’ and, towards the top of the picture, ‘lumpy’ – there are ridges of colour.

The sunlight is getting caught up in the vapour, as if it too is a solid entity.

This is “Mortlake Terrace, The Seat of William Moffat, Summer’s Evening, 1927” and now at the National Gallery of Art (USA) which describes:

The painting was done about eight years after Turner’s first stay in Venice, where his perception of nature and the physical world was profoundly changed by the city’s unique light and atmosphere. Light immobilizes the river and gives its surface a dreamlike shimmer. The stable mass of the classical gazebo, the delicate linear clarity of its architectural details, and the carefully depicted windows in the buildings on the left bank of the river coexist in Turner’s vision with the heavy impasto of the sun’s forceful rays that spill over the top of the embankment wall and dissolve the stone’s very substance.

Note that phrase “the heavy impasto of the sun’s forceful rays” – again, the sunlight has its own texture; more than that it is forceful, active as it “immobilizes the river” and “dissolves the stone’s very substance” as it hits the middle of the wall. (The effect of this is contrasted with the silhouette of the dog – which is in fact collaged on, stuck onto the canvas on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy exhibition; Turner always did like a dramatic last-minute flourish!)

Another painting will highlight too Turner’s poetic understanding of sunlight, and perhaps also the role of the artist.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; Apollo and Python; Tate;

Apollo is associated in Greek myth with both the sun and the arts, and here he is shown killing the dragon Python. This myth has been described as an allegory for the dispersal of the fogs and clouds of vapor which arise from ponds and marshes (Python) by the rays of the sun (the arrows of Apollo) – notes Wikipedia.

In Turner’s painting we have the golden arms of a sparkling-haloed Apollo in contrast to the Dragon’s lair. The emissary of light has vanquished darkness. And would it be too far to suggest that – filled with the spirit of Apollo – this was the role of the artist? Might we think of Turner as charging across the new day of art history with his paintings of sun and light? It maybe another myth, but it is often told that on his deathbed Turner declared:

“The Sun is God”.

And he was well aware that whilst the artist should work within the traditions of the Old Masters, the artist can be “subdued by their overbearing authority… in the study of art… something is the result of our [own] observation as well as those who have studied before us.” These are Turner’s words (quoted in Hamilton) and he clearly saw himself working within the tradition but having ideas of his own.

In terms of his paintings of the sun and sunlight then, Turner layers “meaning”, “symbolism” and his own “experiential” observation – from history and myth to contemporary scientific ideas. And when we think of the Royal Academy we are not referring to the institution and building as it is today. In Turner’s time the RA was at Somerset House on the Strand, a premises it shared with the scientists of the Royal Society. And it was there, in 1801, that William Herschel described the sun as “a solid globe of unignited matter.”

Turner has taken on these theories for, as we have seen, his suns are – in themselves – solid, unignited paint, whilst it is the rays around the sun that illuminate the scene. All this was of course a source of great debate. Those of a Romantic disposition were horrified that the scientists might try to deny them the myth and poetry of the sun. And Turner too recognised that science was not everything, that theory takes the artist only so far and then stops; what takes over is “the working of genius or the exercise of talent.” Thus the artist can go further than the scientist, merging fact and fiction into one vision.

To one of Turner’s most extraordinary late paintings “The Angel Standing in the Sun” (which really does take the poetic view) he appended a note:

Light is not only glorious and sacred, it is voracious, carnivorous, unsparing. It devours the whole world impartially, without distinction.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William; The Angel Standing in the Sun; Tate;

Here we see Archangel Michael appearing on Judgment Day with his flaming sword. In the foreground are figures from the Bible, including Adam and Eve weeping over the body of Abel; Judith standing over the beheaded Holofernes. This brings in – along with science, nature, observation, history, myth and poetry – another element, religion.

It’s as if the sun is the repository of humanity – all the histories and stories that humans have to make sense of the world are located there.


All The Colours of the Sun

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Next time we’ll explore the ‘alchemy’ that intrigues me most: Turner’s transformation of light into colour.

a slight delay on “All the Colours of the Sun (4)…

but it should be up & running this Friday 31st.

In the meantime, there’s a fascinating article from Apollo magazine:

Ravishing essays in colour and light – Turner’s views of Mount Rigi

by Andrew Wilton.