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 (4)

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

All the Colours of the Sun (3): Staycations with JMW Turner

On and around the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was ‘in lockdown’ and travel to continental Europe – including Italy, that destination for any serious artist or collector – impossible due to the Napoleonic Wars. Yet, if Turner couldn’t go to visit the land of Claude, then he would bring the spirit of Claude to the British landscape.

In turn he would raise the appreciation of landscape – deemed low on Joshua Reynolds’ hierarchy of art, indeed Henry Fuseli called it mere ‘mapwork’ – to radical new heights. Art historian Kathleen Nicolson says that Turner’s adherence to Claude was in fact due to his desire to “raise the affective power of landscape painting [and] to give the portrayal of nature the same power to move the heart and mind expected of the depiction of significant human actions in History Painting.”

Turner 1

Dolbadern Castle [1798; National Library of Wales]

(There are a number of preparatory sketches held at the Tate too)

“Dolbadern Castle” is perhaps one of the most outstanding early examples of giving historical power to landscape painting, turning a ‘simple view’ into a picture resonant with allusion and potential meaning. And we have to look – as always – at the detail in Turner’s paint for, small in the foreground, is a group of three men. Tiny as they are, there is a sense of violence: the man in the middle (wearing red) seems to be being forced to his knees, his arms tied behind his back; the other two are in armour, one seemingly pointing up towards the castle. And as we, the viewers, look upwards past the dark looming rocks we too see the castle – full of majesty and power, silhouetted against the infusion of sunlight coming through the rolling clouds.

Turner’s reference here is to Owain Goch who was imprisoned in the castle from 1254-1277 by his brother Llewellyn and only released after Edward I had defeated Llewellyn and enforced English rule over Wales. This of course contains a great irony: Owain gains his freedom as Wales loses it.

The landscape then has become resonant with history and drama; the light through the clouds has become significant – but whether this is the dawn of hope or the sunset of liberty, we don’t know.

Turner 2

Scarborough Town and Castle. Morning. Boys Catching Crabs. [1811; watercolour; private collection]

A quite different painting. The morning sun rises over the waking town in a glorious glow of light that shimmers from white out into ever stronger colouring. The composition is essentially Claudian (that shimmer of water down to the frame) and again this is more than ‘just a scene’, for Turner introduces the element of time: from the ruins of an historical castle up on the hill in the background to the modern town in the bay; in the foreground boys catch crabs and women lay out washing to dry on the rocks – as they have, perhaps, for centuries; and on the water’s edge, cargo is being transferred from boats onto carts whilst further along a bathing-machine is pulled into the water – the ancient work of the fishermen paralleled with the new tourist industry.

Past and present are combined in this picture of Scarborough as they are – in a different way – here:

Crossing the Brook exhibited 1815 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Crossing the Brook exhibited 1815 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Here the British countryside morphs with the Claudian ideal – an ‘elevated pastoral’ – for as idyllic and Roman-esque as this may seem, it is actually Devon. Although not quite geographically accurate (Turner has combined different viewpoints), we see the river Tamar and Gunnislake Bridge. The foreground though, the woman and the dog, is romantically ‘fictional’.

It would seem, in itself, a slight painting – there’s none of the drama of Dolbadern Castle, nor indeed the intertwining of past and present as on Scarborough sands. Yet this painting is full of meaning and symbolic importance – only it comes not ‘within’ the picture, but in the timing of its exhibition and the way it is seen by the viewer. As Tate notes:

This painting was exhibited in the year of the battle of Waterloo.

It would have been hard to avoid the patriotic subtext of such a grandly ambitious depiction of the national landscape.

This shows the growing importance of the landscape as a symbol of Britain; no longer ‘mere mapwork’, landscape painting has become entwined with the national – political, military – discourses of society.

“We” – the common viewers of the day – looked at and saw the landscape quite differently to, say, twenty years earlier. At least some of us did. Sir George Beaumont described Turner’s painting as “all peagreen insipidy” (Tate). And, more generally, we can never forget that William Blake thought landscape nothing but a “vegetable curtain” put up by the Devil.

Let us look at one more of Turner’s lockdown ‘British’ landscapes:

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

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

British? Well, yes. For this ‘historical’, indeed ‘military’ painting actually started off as a sketch of a thunderstorm in Yorkshire!

And in contrast to any Claudian framing of space and distance, Turner has deployed a vortex, a great roller wave of cloud ploughing across and making the sky hugely dramatic as sunlight and thunder contrast and clash with each other. This sky is no backdrop, it is part and parcel of the picture’s drama and meaning. Reduced to the lower right of the picture we have the Carthaginian army struggling through the Alps with this furious snowstorm approaching whilst to the left Swiss tribesmen are attacking the soldiers – all of which is miniscule in comparison with Nature. Not that we should miss these details – indeed when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Turner insisted it be hung ‘below the line’ so that it was at the level of the viewer – adding indeed to the theatricality of the painting as the viewer feels close, almost part of, the scene.

And it is only by looking at the detail that we even hope to see Hannibal:

Turner 5

In his biography of Turner, James Hamilton notes how important this painting is – as Turner parallels the ancient war of Hannibal and Carthage against Rome in the Punic Wars with contemporary events, that is the long war between the British and the French. The moment depicted in the painting is when Hannibal rallies his troops, urging them to follow him out of the storm and on to military victory. When the picture was exhibited, Wellington’s army is regaining land and beginning to push Napoleon out of Spain.

The elements of landscape painting in “Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps” – in particular sky, clouds and sunlight – are combined with history and literature as well as Britain’s contemporary socio-political situation. It’s an extraordinary painting. Turner has taken all Claude’s ideas and pushed them as far as he can: twisting the geometry and the sunlight, and collapsing the historical allusion of Hannibal on his elephant with a storm over Yorkshire to create one of his most intense and dramatic pictures.

Next week we will pick up the theme of the sun in Turner’s paintings.

In the meantime, note his most peculiar depiction of the sun in the “Hannibal…” painting:

Turner 6


All The Colours of the Sun (3)

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All the Colours of the Sun (2): Turner and ‘Aerial’ Claude

There is a small room in the National Gallery dedicated to a request made by Turner in his will – that two of his paintings be hung in perpetuity alongside two paintings by Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), a French painter who worked mostly in Italy. Now Turner often ‘took on’ the great masters in a sort of competitive spirit (see Michael Glover’s review “Turner and the Masters: competitive spirit”, the Independent) – to both learn from them, and to take their ideas further. Claude though was a lifelong love and obsession for Turner, who was awed by the 17th-century painter. Indeed, there is a story that Turner, as a young man, cried when he first saw a Claude painting – for its beauty, and for thinking that he, Turner, would never be able to paint like that.

Of course Turner would paint like Claude: he would absorb the master’s methods and drive them yet further. and what fascinated him above all else was Claude’s painting of light.

Turner 1

Claude The Mill 1648 Oil on canvas, 152.3 x 200.6 cm Bought, 1824 NG12

“The Mill” aka “The Marriage of Isaak and Rebekah” (1648) takes a story from the Book of Genesis, transporting it to an idyllic Italian scene: the marriage revelry plays out in the foreground as the serpentine river leads the eye beyond town and mountain into the far distance of the horizon.

The freshness of the sky is extraordinary, one can sense the bright airiness.

One 19th-century art historian, Michael Bryan, wrote that “Claude soars above the servile representation of ordinary nature and transports his spectators into the regions of poetry and enchantment.” Others noted Claude’s brilliancy in depicting an almost visible atmosphere. Turner himself called the artist “aerial Claude”.

And what is so strange about the painting is that if one catches it just out of the corner of one’s eye, what stands out is not the ‘story’ of the marriage scene, but the sky itself: it seems to hang like a pocket of light – something I can only suggest here by means of draining out the colour…Turner 2It’s due to the way in which Claude constructs the picture: the trees don’t frame the sky as such, but force us to distinguish foreground and background, squashing the middle space so that the light is primarily in the distance. This catches the eye: we explore sky, horizon and the river, only then coming to the foreground and that patch of light immediately in front of us.

If we look at the second painting by Claude that hangs in the Bequest, we’ll see this even more clearly.

Turner 3

Claude Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba 1648 Oil on canvas, 149.1 x 196.7 cm Bought, 1824 NG14

 (It’s worth noting the short introductory film on the National Gallery website: here)

The painting depicts the Queen of Sheba as she sets off to visit King Solomon of Jerusalem; the vessels are loaded with luggage and gifts as the early morning sun lights up the city of Carthage. The Queen is on the steps to the right.

Turner 4

 And if we again take out the colour, we can see that ‘pocket’ of light. As with the trees previously, here the buildings hold up the sky and note how the reflection of the light on the water leads the eye in a line down the centre of the picture to the foreground.

Most important though is that, in this painting, Claude has put – right at its very centre – the sun itself. It’s something Turner would also do from very early in his career. It means the rest of the painting – the colours and the shadows – is driven by luminosity.

Turner 5

Joseph Mallord William Turner Dido building Carthage 1815 Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 230 cm Turner Bequest, 1856 NG498

In parallel to Claude, Turner positions the sun right at the centre of “Dido building Carthage” (1815); the sun rises in the sky as the city rises from the earth. And, again in parallel to Claude, Turner creates a pocket of luminous atmosphere and the sun reflects a pathway on the water down towards us at the foreground.

The story itself is taken from Virgil’s “Aeneid”: the struggle for power between the two cities of Carthage and Rome during the Punic Wars (indeed this history subject might screen the contemporary struggle of Britain and Napoleonic France). The figure in blue and white on the bank to the left is Dido as she directs the architects and builders. The figure in armour might be her lover Aeneus. The children playing with a toy boat could symbolise the fragile but growing naval power of Carthage. Meanwhile, on the opposite bank stands the tomb of Dido’s murdered husband – foreshadowing future events.

But here, the rising sun marks this as the image of the dawning of a new empire.

Not that the painting didn’t have its critics, due in particular to Turner’s use of colour, the contrasting yellow and blue of the sky was deemed excessive and “far from nature”. The critics never did ‘get’ Turner’s love of colour (to which we’ll return).

The sun is also at the heart of the second Turner painting that hangs alongside the Claudes:

Turner 6

Joseph Mallord William Turner Sun Rising through Vapour before 1807 Oil on canvas, 134 x 179.5 cm Turner Bequest, 1856 NG479

 It’s a very different painting; inspired, one feels, more by Dutch art than Claude. Yet, again, Turner takes the Claudian construction even to this scene of boats on a river and the fishermen on the sands: the sun is central and its light sweeps across the water down to the foreground.

The classic ‘old master’ has been made modern in this mundane everyday scene not of nymphs dancing or queens overseeing, but fishermen at rest.

And it is perhaps to show himself as ‘the modern Claude’ that Turner decided this picture would hang as part of the Bequest instead of the one he’d originally suggested, and which is now at the Tate:

Turner 7 This is “The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire” (1817; Tate)

and it has the most remarkable subtitle:

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire-Rome being determined on the Overthrow of her Hated Rival, demanded from her such Terms as might either force her into War, or ruin her by Compliance: the Enervated Carthaginians, in their Anxiety for Peace, consented to give up even their Arms and their Children

It’s a brighter painting than Dido building Carthage, and much more dramatic: there is a chaos of armaments in the foreground, a woman weeps on the steps, and a snake is hidden coiled in the flowers on the left.

But note the construction, the light…

the sun.

    Turner 8

   Turner 9

Turner 10

The sun here is absolutely solid – like a milk bottle top stuck on.

Turner 11 The Tate notes that in the exhibition catalogue, Turner penned a poem which included the lines:

o’er the western wave th’esanguin’d sun,
In gathering haze a stormy signal spread,
And set portentous.


To investigate the sun in Turner’s work is the investigation of light, colour and texture; and it’s full of meaning.

Next time we’ll look at some of Turner’s landscapes and his ‘translation’ of Claude’s Italian idylls to the British scene.


But, as a postscript, I just want to glance at another of Turner’s paintings (one of my absolute favourites) in the National Gallery collection:

Turner 12

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

Taken from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer, this is much more than an illustration to a scene from the Odyssey. This is an essay on light and colour. See the sun – like a lighthouse – on the horizon, it’s rays reaching up into a sky of thickly painted colours whilst the sun itself is white with heat and light.

All of this – and more –  we’ll return to in a couple of weeks.

Polyphemus (2)

But for now, could it be that the disc of the sun there on the horizon forms the wheel of the sun god Apollo’s chariot? If we look up a little and just to the right of it, are they the heads and manes of horses rearing up as they draw the chariot across the sky, thus bringing in the new day?

Here’s Guido Reni’s rather clearer “Aurora” (c.1614) from a fresco in Rome:



Turner 10

All the Colours of the Sun (2)

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“All The Colours of the Sun” – Exploring the Art of JMW Turner (1): Introduction

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Self-Portrait

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

“Self-Portrait” [1777; Tate]

This self-portrait appears to date from around 1799 when Turner was about twenty-four years old. It was possibly intended to mark an important moment in his career, his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy – Tate.


On a little diversion from our “Rambling with Rothenstein” project, I thought we might look – in some depth – at the work of one of the most internationally famous artists, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

One of the great joys of Turner is that he painted so much: from pastorals to history painting to seascapes. Nothing it seems evaded Turner’s eyes or brush – whether it was an old Biblical scene or modern Victorian industrialisation; the landscapes of Britain or the canals of Venice.

And so, to prevent us rambling too far afield, “All the Colours of the Sun” is a 6-week exploration of sunlight and colour:

  1. Introduction
  2. The inspiration of Claude Lorrain
  3. Turner’s landscape project in context (with especial reference to John Constable)
  4. Sunlight and Colour: translating paint into the effects of sunlight and the creation of colour
  5. The texture of modern life: “Rain, Steam and Speed”
  6. Turner’s radiant late watercolours

As an introduction then, I want first to discuss the painting that inspired this research:

Turner - Interior 1

Painted in or around 1830 and now at the Tate, we can see that it is clearly an unfinished painting. Indeed art historians are not even sure of its subject matter or where it was painted. The Tate‘s title for it is “Interior of a Great House: The Drawing Room, East Cowes Castle” (East Cowes Castle being the Isle of Wight home of Turner’s friend, the architect John Nash), but it seems to have been re-worked over the years and may have been the beginnings of a picture to be called “The Sack of a Great House” (hence all the jumble in the foreground).

I find it one of the most beautiful of Turner’s canvases despite – or because of – its unfinished state and unknown story.

Moreover, I think it suggests what made Turner’s vision so unique.

Turner was a genius painter; no one quite compares to his style or fluency. A Cockney Londoner born in the back streets of Covent Garden, he was elected as Royal Academician in 1802 at the age of just 26.

Despite his genius, Turner did have his critics. Indeed by the end of his life he was seen as positively mad – his paintings had gone off the scale of the Academy’s expectations, one critic declaring: “He delights in abstractions that go back to the first chaos of the world” (quoted in James Hamilton) – which is a very apt description when it comes to the “Interior of a Great House”.

And there are some very interesting notes in this painting: the emerald green and the bright red vermilion are astonishing contrasts. The emerald green was only newly available, and much stronger than mixes of blue and yellow.

Then there’s that dazzling light through the window.

Turner 5

If we look in close, we see that it’s created using palette knife, brush, the ‘wrong’ end of the brush and indeed scratches from Turner’s thumb nail, which he kept long especially for such purposes. He revelled in getting his fingers and hands ‘dirty’ with paint. And note how the light blue contrasts with the yellows, giving a kind of shimmer – this would have been much more intense when he painted it, for the blue has muted with age.

The colours, the textures – they’re all so exhilarating to the eyes, all in motion; like the chemicals and gases that exploded with the Big Bang in the formation of the universe, that “first chaos”. And that might be one of the best ways to think about this painting – perhaps even most of Turner’s mature paintings – as the explosion of gases that would make the solid matter of the world.

Turner 8

Graham Reynolds describes:

“a brilliant light dissolves the scene into its colour constituents and spills like debris on the floor of the room”.

It’s a glorious description, but I want to change that verb from “dissolves” to a more positive force –

a brilliant light creates a scene of colour, shaping every corner of the room

– because rather than seeing this as a picture of a room with light streaming through the window, we could look at it the other way around and see it as a painting of light and how it makes the room visible by illuminating the space and wrapping everything in colour and shadow.

Whichever way, it is this investigation of light that, it seems to me, underpins much Turner’s work and gives his paintings such power.

And it is with this aim – the (re)presentation of sunlight – that Turner looked to the 17th-century paintings of Claude Lorrain as we’ll see in part two.


Before we leave the Isle of Wight (and as a taster for Claude’s influence) though, have a look at Turner’s (1827)

“Sketch for ‘East Cowes Castle, the Regatta Starting for Their Moorings’ No. 2”

Sketch for 'East Cowes Castle, the Regatta Starting for Their Moorings' No. 2 1827 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

which was possibly painted on the spot, Turner sitting aboard a boat (see Tate website).

Right at the heart of the picture is an intense, brilliant, illuminating (sun)light painted with slabs of thick white paint.



There are of course numerous books on Turner’s life and art, but I find “Turner: A Life” by James Hamilton [Sceptre, 1997] one of the best in terms of insightful detail and a ‘good read’.

Turner 10

All the Colours of the Sun (i)

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