"Turner asserts himself and this is one of his great merits. Another, and greater one still, is that he always aspired to the best and greatest, and even to his last hour, sought the realization of an ever-advancing ideal which led him from day to day to greater heights. In this struggle after the unattainable, he was upheld by his genius, but if he now and then gives way and appears abstruse and incomprehensible to other minds, it is owing to one mistake . . . Turner did not always study nature. In the rapture of his fervent imagination he has sometimes disdained the truth."
"We have had, living among us and painting for us, the greatest painter of all time, a man with whose supremacy of power no intellect of past ages can be put in comparison for a moment."
"J. M. W. Turner was the only man who was ever given an entire transcript of the whole system of nature, and is, in this point of view, the only perfect landscape painter whom the world has ever seen."
"The qualities of Turner's art are so varied and so great that there is some danger, especially with the influence of Mr. Ruskin's eloquence and frequent use of hyperbole, of a national idolatry of Turner, like the Roman idolatry of Raphael or the French idolatry of Claude . . . .
"Turner's high special culture, his low general culture, were both causes of isolation, for both knowledge and ignorance isolate us, each in its own way."
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Maiden Lane is a dingy street near Covent Garden in London. Though it may have known better days when Voltaire lived there, and Andrew Marvel, great poet though he was, was content to occupy an upper room overlooking its narrow dinginess, at present it is prison-like in its gloom and slumlike in its squalor. Near the west end of this forlorn street England's greatest landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, was born on the 23rd of April, 1775.
He who was destined to paint sunlight like molten gold, clouds like fleece, and skies like sapphire, first saw the day in a narrow London lane, beclouded by the smoke and fog that hang like a pall over the dense city. This is a strange circumstance, when, out of the thousands of little boys who have above them the open scroll of the heavens, inscribed only with the story of the stars and the sun and moon, who wander all day over carpets of living turf, among bird and squirrel-haunted trees, only rarely one develops into even a commonplace landscape artist.
It seems a kind provision of nature and of God that so often those born into poverty of natural surroundings are given natures by which they coin the very riches they lack. We know how often men born far inland have given us poems and pictures of the sea which those familiar with its various manifestations, have never been able to transmit, or indeed had never cared to transmit to lovers of the ocean.
There were other things besides the dreariness of the location that, on first thought, seem detrimental to any ambition the child might have had toward art. His father was a barber and hairdresser, with few refined notions and with a Shylock propensity for saving which became his son's heritage in double measure. He came originally from Devonshire and belonged to the peasant class. His shop and home were all together in Maiden Lane, the shop on the ground floor, with living rooms above and an inhabitable cellar below.
Indeed, some authorities say that the family spent much of their time in this cellar, because it was more economical than to occupy the upper rooms. To us who relegate our cellars to vegetables and furnaces this seems nothing short of death in life. We must remember, however, that the ground on which London stands is almost honey-combed with human habitations, and in these cellars thousands of the servant class spend their lives.
It is said that the elder Turner did a thriving business, for he was in the immediate vicinity of some of the great theatres of London. The actors, very naturally, sought out some place near by where their wigs could be satisfactorily curled and powdered. We must remember, too, that at this time wigs were not confined to the theatrical class. No man's wardrobe was considered complete that did not contain at least three wigs, one for common wear, one for state occasions, and one "for good," as we say. Turner's father not only dressed these wigs but he sold them as well, and fifty pounds sterling was the ordinary price for a first class peruke, or wig.
The little I have said of Turner's father would hardly lead one to covet him as a parent and yet the relations of this father and son, as they later develop, are the most admirable part of Turner's life story.
If the boy Turner seemed limited by the occupation and person of his father, other great artists had been likewise deprived, for Tintoretto's father was a dyer, and Andrea del Sarto's, a tailor. To my notion, however, Turner suffered still more, than by heritage and in the surroundings of his childhood, from the personality of his mother. There is a story to the effect that she belonged to a noble family of Nottinghamshire and that the boy Turner went sometimes to visit his relatives there. The whole story seems rather shadowy. Whatever its elements of truth or falsity, this we do know, that Turner's mother in her early married life had an ungovernable temper, probably the forerunner of that insanity which later made it necessary to separate her from her family and confine her in a mad house where she finally died.
All his life Turner was morbidly sensitive on the subject of his mother's insanity and the least reference to her he resented as an insult. I know no greater deprivation that a boy, destined either to fame or to obscurity, could suffer than this—to live in terror of the mention of his mother's name. You will agree with me, I am sure, when you recall the great army of boys who have been saved from worthless lives, to bless the world, all through the holy influence of a good, a prayerful, a long-suffering mother.
As we study Turner's life further and are repelled by its unlovely features, even while we adore his pictures, we must bear in mind that from his childhood and youth was eliminated the most potent influence for good in a boy's formative years, the love and watchful care of a mother. Remembering this, we should soften our judgment accordingly.
Many things we see lacking, then, in the boy's early surroundings and many to deplore. Perhaps there was slight compensation in the fact that a society of artists occupied a building opposite the Turner home and that the boy must often have listened to the talk of distinguished men who came to his father's shop. Slight though these circumstances were, yet they may have opened to the budding mind of the young boy dim vistas in the world outside his father's shop.
One incident of Turner's childhood is always repeated and it is valuable in that it shows how susceptible the boy was even to slight influences: One day the elder Turner had occasion to go to the elegant home of a Mr. Tomkinson to attend to some hairdressing matters. The father took with him his little son, then only seven years old. We can imagine him running along by his father's side that April morning, talking of the things boys will talk about—possibly of the boats that jostled each other on the black waters of the Thames, or of Lambeth Palace and the Parliament Houses opposite. At last they are ushered into the stately house and the boy sits looking shyly about while his father curls and powders and otherwise does the office of a hairdresser.
We can guess that the homeward walk was more silent than that of the morning, for the father was fatigued and the boy, from what followed, was doubtless revolving in his mind an image he had caught while waiting for his father to finish his work with Mr. Tomkinson. The evening he probably spent in his own little room while his parents wondered what occupied his small mind, if indeed they missed him at all.
Early the next morning he showed them triumphantly the drawing of a rampant lion, a copy of one that the child had seen the day before on a server in Mr. Tomkinson's dining room. The father was delighted and at once set it down in his seemingly obtuse mind that "Billy is going to be an artist." With evident delight he showed the drawing to his customers, and so began that pride in his son's work which became a passion with him, lasting to his latest hour.
Unlettered though William Turner was, this pride in his boy's art went hand in hand with the desire to give him all possible opportunity for education. For this decision, for reasons deeper than he could himself explain, we ought to give him unstinted praise. While many another, not from ignorance but from perverseness, might have curbed a tendency so foreign to his own station in life, our artist's father spared no pains, either in giving praise or opportunity, to develop the apparent bent of his boy's tastes.
At the age of ten, he was sent to Brentford to school. While here he lived with a butcher, the brother of Turner's mother. Brentford is seventeen miles northeast of London, on the Thames. In Turner's boyhood it was a place of fine open fields, filled with wild flowers, and overhead was a sky free from smoke or fog. It must have seemed like Paradise itself to a boy who had never before seen more of the country than the suburbs of London. Of his devotion to his studies we cannot say much. There is evidence that his companions often solved the stubborn problems submitted to him while he spent his time drawing objects and scenes that attracted him.
After a while the father came for his boy and took him back to the soil and moil of London. Whatever else he acquired or did not acquire in the school at Brentford, we feel certain that here began that knowledge of the classic myths which served the painter so well in the great days of his art.
We do not know whether his barber father was awed by the mysterious learning which his son brought back with him, but we do know that the youth was shortly put to school again, this time in Soho Academy, near by, where he continued the education already fairly begun at Brentford.
We next find him in school at Margate, a fine seaport town almost at the extreme northeastern part of Kent. He grew very fond of Kent and its hop fields and there is reason to believe that he would have been proud to claim it as his native county.
We have noted regretfully some of the points in Turner's childhood which could not help him in the career of an artist. In contrast with these points we ought to emphasize the value of his residence both at Brentford and at Margate. It matters little whether his study of books prospered or not. The preparation that came from the things of nature about him in these places was more helpful than all the books. At one place rich fields gave to him ungrudgingly of their imperishable produce, eternal beauty; at the other that hoary giant, the ever-changing, the all-powerful, the ceaseless-sounding ocean, filled his artist soul with images which in later years he yielded to the hungry gaze of lovers of the sea.
With the record of three good schools to fall back upon, we can hardly consider Turner a self-educated man even though his school training ceased at the early age of thirteen. On his return to London he studied drawing with the popular Paul Sandby, and was greatly helped, not only by the lessons, but by the drawings of his master. He had vacations when he visited his father's people in Bristol, his butcher uncle at Brentford and his friends at Margate, so we see his life, although fully occupied, was not all work.
In the barber shop window there appeared from time to time copies of popular pictures done by the young Maiden Lane artist. If we could have happened by in those days we might have bought one of these now precious copies, for two, or at most, three shillings.
The boy had heard much talk of the great Reynolds and Gainsboro who lived only a few blocks away, and he must have felt it a privilege when things were arranged so that he could copy in Reynolds' studio some of that painter's greatest portraits. The pleasure and the profit were cut short, however, by the death of the aged and infirm painter. It must have been a pleasant thing for Turner to recall in after years that he had once associated, even in the unequal manner of student and master, with the courtly Reynolds.
I wonder too if Reynolds, as he "shifted his trumpet and took snuff," ever allowed his imagination to outrun the years and picture the stripling painting there so diligently as the greatest landscape-painter of England, or, if he did so, did he consider it much honor, this popular portrait and figure painter? However that may be, we always love to contemplate the proximity of geniuses, especially when the secret of the greatness of any one of them is yet folded within the budding years.
At the age of fourteen we find Turner a regular student of the Royal Academy. His first sketches were views about Lambeth Palace, some of which were exhibited in 1790 and attracted considerable attention.
To this period of his life belongs a sorrow and a disappointment which undoubtedly influenced his life almost as unfavorably as the fact of his mother's unnatural temper and later insanity. While visiting a school mate at Margate he fell deeply in love with a sister of his friend. Things seemed bright for the young couple and they parted expecting to see each other shortly. Turner wrote regularly, but the young lady received none of his letters. After two years she, therefore, accepted a lover her father had selected for her.
One day Turner appeared suddenly and explained how he had been off on his sketching tours and that he had written to her very often, but that he had never received a rely. It was found that the letters had been intercepted and two lives were practically wrecked by this wicked interference. The girl married an old man whom she did not love and it certainly takes little discernment to see that the private life of the painter would have been quite different had he had a home, wife and children.
Turner's sketching tours were an important part of his art career. To such an extent were they carried that he knew almost by heart the whole of England, for who can know the features of a country so well as he who tramps over it on foot and looks about him with a view to reproducing what he sees? His first expeditions of this sort were into Wales and the west of England. Shortly afterwards he travelled in Kent, Straffordshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire. Later he went into the beautiful north of England where his sense of color and form was satisfied within a very small territory, for distances in England are exceedingly short.
The drawings he made in these various sections were engraved at once and published in sets which sold readily, as we can easily see from the rapidity with which the commissions poured in upon him from great engraving firms. In the course of these engraving tours he drew almost every cathedral in England. In this we see the beginning of his taste for introducing architectural details which, in his later paintings, is so evident. He began by making almost photographic reproductions of the buildings that pleased his fancy, and he ended by bringing in bits of architecture which had existence only in the poetry-charged brain of their inventor. Such is genius in most cases. It begins cautiously, groping its way, trying its power by copying and then, after a time, it soars away, strong-winged and confident, into those realms to which it only has the key. Then we proclaim, and rightly too, that an original genius has appeared among us.
On some of his sketching expeditions he had a charming companion, Tom Girtin, a wonderful watercolor artist who, if he had lived, would undoubtedly have been a formidable rival to Turner. So fond were they of each other, however, that we can hardly imagine this rivalry to have been other than friendly. Turner once exclaimed as he was admiring some of Girtin's drawings, "I never in my whole life could make a drawing like that; I would at any time have given one of my little fingers to have made such a one!" The association of Turner with Girtin must certainly be ranked with the privileges of his life, for the latter was pure in morals and elegant and refined in manners.
Another of the benign influences in Turner's life was the opportunity he enjoyed in Dr. Monroe's fine house on Adelphi Terrace. Dr. Monroe was a wealthy man, exceedingly fond of art. He collected pictures and prints until his house was little short of a museum. It is said that his attention was first attracted to Turner by noticing some of the little copies in the dingy shop window in Maiden Lane.
At all events, this generous patron of the arts invited Turner and his young friend Girtin to come once a week and have supper at his house and then copy pictures which he had in his collection. Dr. Monroe gave them half a crown each for their copies. The money seems small, and yet we know that at this time even so small a sum was worth considering to Turner. Even counting this as naught, there was rich compensation in the chance to study the good Doctor's collection, in the influence of a refined home and in the association with his friend Girtin. Turner never forgot Dr. Monroe's kindness and always in later life he referred to him affectionately.
It is evident, too, that Monroe kept his eye on his young protegé, for we know that he bought whole volumes of Turner's sketches both of home and foreign scenery. He reaped a substantial reward, too, when the artist had become famous by selling the copies for which he had expended a supper and a half crown, at three and four guineas each. Whatever pecuniary compensation the patron received, we feel sure that it was a kind heart and a love of art that prompted Dr. Monroe to open so freely the door of his home and of his art treasures to two young struggling painters.
In 1795, Turner made his first picture in oil colors and he was pleased with his new venture. The year following he removed to rooms of his own not far from Maiden Lane. He had already achieved considerable success as a drawing teacher and in his new quarters he executed several of his important works, representing usually buildings and scenes from southern England.
The year following must have been a happy one for Turner, for this was the year of his sketching tour in Yorkshire, the banner county of England for scenery and for beautiful architectural remains. There are other sections of England attractive for one reason or another, but in Yorkshire we have them all united. Here is the ecclesiastical architecture of Lincolnshire and occasionally its dreary waste of fen and moorland; the castles of the south guarding the chalk cliffs of Albion are beautiful indeed, but they fade into insignificance when we recall Whitby or the vistas of Fountains Abbey.
The fertile stretches of the Thames or the hop-trellised fields of Kent even find their prototypes in Yorkshire fields. Better than all, however, to a mind of Turner's cast must have seemed the mountains with their "forces," their cataracts and their picturesque lakes. We can even imagine that in this wonderful diversity of the "north countree" Turner found his genius, or rather that which developed his genius to the supreme point, which richness of imagination adds its crowning touch. What a wonderland it is! And how master spirits have hung like parasites to its hills and vales, its lakes and its border wastes of sand.
The mere mention of the region brings to our minds names of magic such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Martineau, Arnold and Ruskin. We may rightly add the name of Turner to this distinguished list, for he too looked toward the hills "from whence cometh our help."
In 1799, Turner was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. His diploma picture was "Dolbadern Castle" in North Wales. As compared with his later work, there seems little to indicate that richness of color and that abundance of sunlight which became his chief characteristic at the maturity of his powers. It is largely brown in its effect and therefore sombre.
Turner was now advancing rapidly in professional honors. In 1802 he ceased to be plain "W. Turner, A." and became "JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER, R. A., that is, in that year he was made a member of the Academy, where he had studied and where he had already exhibited for ten years.
It is an interesting fact that out of the sixty years of Turner's connection with the Royal Academy he missed exhibiting only four times. It gives us some notion of his infinite industry when we know that he exhibited in all nearly three hundred pictures. Hamerton, who, I believe, is the fairest writer on Turner, says that it would take an industrious man a hundred years simply to copy Turner's paintings and drawings, to say nothing of the time usually consumed in their invention or composition.
Of the collection of drawings in the National Gallery there were many rolls containing in all nineteen thousand sheets, many of which contain several drawings. In view of this prodigious amount of work, it is little to be wondered at that those who defend Turner's character claim in excuse for his many short-comings that he was too busy, too engrossed with his art, to have any regard for the amenities of life. Perhaps those thousands of tiny sketches of sky and cloud and mountain were the very stepping-stones by which he rose to the supreme heights where he floods the world at once with poetry and with light. We must then take the life as we find it—search diligently for the good it contains and eschew the bad which, unfortunately, is so prominent.
About this time he made his first Continental tour, which took him into France and Switzerland. Of the many pictures which resulted from this trip "Calais Pier" and "Macon Vintage" are perhaps the best known. He was fast drifting away from the photographic style that had marked his earlier sketches. He visited places and studied them, but he brought back no accurate reproduction of them. From his sea voyage, he simply knew better the moods of "gray old ocean," and from the lordly heights of the Alps his soul took in more deeply, more truly, the spirit of the mountains which, in some future picture, would pour itself out to the delight and edification of all who looked upon its inspired representation.
On his return from the Continent, he stood on an elevated point in his career. Though not fully appreciated, perhaps, in his loftiest flights into the regions of ideal beauty, yet there was a degree of appreciation very satisfactory to the artist, whose dearest thought in life was the maintenance and preservation of his own fame.
He was a member of the Royal Academy and yearly his exhibits were looked forward to as those of a growing genius; he was defended, even in his faults, by John Ruskin, England's most distinguished art critic, until it became a saying, "There is but one artist and Ruskin is his prophet."
There was one corner, however, where Fortune seemed to withold her smile. The barber shop in Maiden Lane was losing its patronage and a heavy tax had been imposed upon powder and wigs. The son saw the falling off in custom and the consequent discouragement of his father and so he took him home to the larger house where he now lived on Haley Street. There seemed to be none of the covert shame which a person elevated to a lofty place among his fellows often shows in his treatment of humble relatives. On the contrary, for the twenty-seven years of their life together in the son's house, there never seems to have been a break in their affection. To be sure, the father made of himself a willing slave, looking after every want of his gifted son from the stretching and varnishing of his canvasses, to the cooking of his meals at times.
Before we criticise too severely the painter for allowing such unremitting service from an aged parent, we must recall how active the elder Turner had always been and how sweet to his economical soul was the privilege of saving a penny whether there was need of it or not. These very characteristics of the father in his younger days undoubtedly made what to us appears hardship to be the deepest pleasure he could have in these his days of apparent dependence. In 1830, he died and was buried in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, and to his memory his son erected a modest monument.
In the study of biography one of its most interesting features often is the contest of rivalry of the hero with another aspiring to the same honors. Generally we suppose this rival to be a living man or woman. In the life of Turner we have the strange anomaly of a living hero putting all his strength into a contest with the dead.
One hundred seventy-five years before Turner was born, there appeared in France an artist whose name has been, through all the years, a synonym for lightness and repose, Claude Lorraine. Like most geniuses he had doubtless been too much praised and, in the hands of Ruskin, he has certainly been too much blamed. Whatever the critics say, however, the present day visitor to great galleries loves to meet with one of Claude's pictures and he stands rapt before its serene beauty.
Turner early saw this popular idolatry of the French master and quite as early determined to rival him. Indeed it is not too much to say that he spent two-thirds of his life trying to make picture-loving people believe that he was greater than the immortal Claude. There is a pathetic side to the contest, for even after this mighty struggle it is still an open question whether Turner or Claude is the greater landscape artist.
We do not have to go to books for the story of this contest. Any visitor to the National Gallery in London will see two pictures by Turner, "Dido Building Carthage" and "Sun Rising through a Vapor," hung between two of Claude's finest paintings. It was only on this condition that Turner bequeathed these two pictures to the Nation, that they should always hang between the Claudes to convince posterity of his superiority.
This rivalry which had in it, on Turner's part, all the animus that could be brought into a contest between two living artists, was further attested to by Turner's "Liber Studiorum," or "Book of Studies." It seems that in Claude's lifetime, when he was painting many pictures, he had made, for his own convenience and as a help in identifying disputed pictures—a sort of memoranda of each of the pictures he had disposed of—a little book of sketches. Of course this was never intended for the public any more than a merchant's account books. To this book he gave the name of "Liber Veritatis," or "Book of Truth." It is now owned by the Duke of Devonshire, and is a most valuable art relic.
Turner saw the book and at once made up his mind to do something in the same line, which would be superior to Claude's work, and so came about "Liber Studiorum," which, unlike Claude's book, was especially intended for publication. The plan was never fully carried out and but seventy-one sketches were published. At the last, so little did people care for the numbers, that they were used for lighting the fire. Years later, some of these wilful destroyers awakened to the fact that they had been burning bank notes, so valuable did the prints become when the "Turner fever" was at its height. A good copy of the entire work is now worth a fortune and some of the single plates have brought as high as twenty pounds. The first number of this work appeared in 1807, and its publication was continued at intervals until 1816.
In 1808, Turner became Professor of Perspective (P. P.) in the Academy, a position which it was impossible for him to fill satisfactorily on account of his lack of power in the use of English, and here, of all places, there was need of the clearest speech to make the explanations of service to students. One can readily understand that the lectures of such a bungler in the use of English were far from clear. Turner must have appreciated this himself, for, on the slightest pretext, an appointed lecture would be abandoned for some other work. He did not fail in this because of lack of effort. His diagrams were elaborate and accurate. He simply lacked the power of expression.
The tradesmen of England were the ones who patronized the great landscape painter and appreciated him. Lord Egremont of Petworth, Sussex, however, was an exception among the noblemen of his time, and he opened his home and his heart to Turner. At the seat of this nobleman the painter spent much time, occupying himself very early in the day with painting and then later giving himself up to the pleasures of the rod, the one sport of which he was very fond. After the death of the Earl he never visited Petworth and he could not speak of his friend without tears.
All these years important pictures were coming from his brush. "Trafalgar," "Apollo and the Python," "Dewy Morning," "Somer Hill," are but a few of the names that appear in the Academy catalogues.
In 1812, Turner's means had become abundant and some of it he expended in fitting up for himself the house in Queen Anne Street so intimately connected with his name and fame. Here he had a studio to paint in and a gallery in which to display his pictures. Leslie, who knew the place for forty years, says that never in all that time was any repairing done, neither touch of paint nor renewal of paper on the walls. That love of color which leads so many artists to surround themselves with all sorts of Oriental stuffs and curious bric-a-brac never showed itself in such manner in Turner. It seemed, on the other hand, that he delighted in dirt and untidiness even when cleanliness and order would have served him better.
From this time, too, he indulged in the luxury of two homes and kept it up until his death. In 1813, he built himself a villa at Twickenham, on the Thames, a quiet spot already made famous by Pope's residence there. Here he kept a boat and a pony to carry him on his shorter sketching tours. For thirteen years he kept this villa and spent some time here each season. Here Chantrey, the noted English sculptor, always a warm friend of Turner's, visited him and shared with him the delights of fishing. On one of his visits Chantrey carved out of marble an exquisite group which is still to be seen above the mantel in one of Turner's rooms.
We have not arrived at the period of Turner's great pictures. Ruskin very wisely divides the painter's productive period into three epochs, the first from 1800 to 1820, the second from 1820 to 1835, and the last from 1835 to 1845. In this arrangement Turner's great critic cuts out the artist's earliest and latest pictures.
The picture which marks the transition from Turner's earlier style to that of his maturity is the one called "Crossing the Brook." This is a very beautiful painting of Devonshire scenery, and though it lacks the depth of color so noticeable in his later works, there is a distance in it that he never afterwards excelled, and this wonderful representation of far-away stretches of land or sea was a point in which he stood alone among English artists.
In the picture of "Dido Building Carthage" we have a conglomeration of classical architecture as if the artist considered this the real theme of his painting. He thought very highly indeed of this canvas. For many years he maintained that he wished to be buried wrapped in this picture. His friend, George Jones, promised that he would carry out the painter's wish in this matter but, he added facetiously, "I'll take pains to see that you are shortly dug up and unrolled." Turner refused many offers for the picture and, as mentioned above, it is one of the paintings destined to challenge Claude's work through all the years in the National Gallery.
The picture is very beautiful notwithstanding the over crowding of architectural details, for in it are many of the artist's strongest points, wonderful distance, and sunlight in a glorious flood transmuting the water into molten gold. It is rather interesting that an artist who could not master a common English sentence, who never knew a foreign language and who really had not the capacity for acquiring one, should have so often selected classical subjects.
In 1819, Turner made his first visit to Italy. The next year he exhibited a picture, "Rome from the Vatican," which is not highly praised by the critics. Nine years later we find him again in the land of sunlight and of artists. At this time he painted one of his most characteristic pictures, "Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus." Of this striking picture Hamerton says, "The impression which it makes as a whole is an impression of extraordinary splendor and power."
Two years later, in 1830, Turner's father died and the artist made his second visit to Scotland. He had formerly made sketches, in conjunction with Sir Walter Scott, for a work called "Provincial Antiquities of Scotland." This time he went to Scotland to make twenty-four illustrations for Scott's poetical works, for Cadill, the Edinburgh publisher.
Since the first association of the poet and painter, Scott had become a saddened man, borne down by debt and bereft by death of his wife, "his thirty years companion." Scott and Lockhart went with Turner to many of the places he wished to draw, but when they came to Dryborough, Scott excused himself from entering, perhaps realizing even then that shortly he would be brought there to go away no more forever.
Turner's work was so satisfactory to Cadill that he was at once commissioned to make drawings to illustrate Scott's prose works. As we have before indicated, Turner was now beyond the photographic period of his art, and in this Scotch work everything is idealized, though there is still the portrait germ that enables us to recognize the scene or building.
"Rivers of France" is a great work, the product of three seasons of touring in France. There were sixty plates and only a very few of them are without architectural detail, more or less elaborate. Here is a chateau, there a cathedral, and in others are bridges or the shipping to be found in seaport towns. Accuracy in representing places is often lacking in these sketches, but for the loss of this dull lead of reality the gap is filled in with the glittering gold of poetry. In his painting Turner does what Scott, Wordsworth or Milton did in their poetry and for which they have the eternal gratitude of their readers.
"Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" appeared in 1832, in illustration of these lines from Byron,—
In this work Turner set himself a hard task, for he wished to represent a sort of summary of Italian scenery. It is an attractive picture, but is fast perishing, owing to the artist's disregard for the rules for using oil-colors. Hamerton says, "We can only enjoy it with that melancholy pleasure that we take in spoiled and ruined things which have once been ineffably exquisite."
Turner's Venice pictures are among the most interesting of all his works. The splendid island city which excels all others in its color must have been attractive indeed to one with Turner's inclinations. "A city of rose and white rising out of an emerald sea, against a sky of sapphire," must have appealed to the artist as a subject ready-made. That he really enjoyed this subject is evident from the fact that he did not stop this series until it numbered eleven pictures. Perhaps the most beautiful of them all were "The Approach to Venice" and "The Sun of Venice Going to Sea."
There is little doubt that the greatest of Turner's pictures is "Old Temeraire," or, as it was listed in the Academy catalogue of 1839, "The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up," 1838.
Everyone knows that the Temeraire was Nelson's flag-ship and this fact alone would make the picture of deep interest to Englishmen. The ship itself is of the good old style, beautiful and majestic, though lacking many of the conveniences of the modern war-ship, but our sentiment gains full possession of us as we note in this scene not only the passing of a famous warship, but the passing, too, of an era in naval warfare. How majestically she moves and how we venerate her out there on the placid sun-lit waters! How trivial, even saucy, seems the snorting tug as it pulls along to its final dissolution this hero of Trafalgar! The sun shows blood-red through a film of clouds but not all the gold of Ophir could make it other than a scene for mourning.
A poem on canvas this surely is and we contemplate it with thrilling hearts, recalling anew the glorious figure of Nelson. Thornbury writes thus of this great picture: — "As a picture it is the most glorious consummation of coloring ever painted by English fingers, or seen by English eyes. In exquisite transparency it surpasses water-colors, in strength and purity it transcends oils. It is the noblest English poem founded on English scenery and English events ever thrown on canvas."
During the last ten years of Turner's life he seemed so intoxicated with his own success that he forgot all rules and painted some strange pictures out of whose wild confusion it is difficult to bring connected ideas. There are so many of his pictures that are worth remembering for their grand qualities that it is hardly worth while to dwell upon these later ones, which certainly grew out of a diseased mind and a shattered life.
Even in this work of his later years he seemed fired with a purpose to represent truth. In "The Snow Storm," in which he represented a ship in distress off harbor-mouth, this is noticeable. He had been in just such a storm and in his desire to see exactly what it was like, he asked the sailors to lash him to the mast that he might the better observe it. Here he remained for four hours, much of the time not expecting to escape ship-wreck. When the picture appeared it gave the critics a fine opportunity to rave. They spoke of it as "soapsuds and whitewash" and seemed to like the sound of the phrase, for it soon became current coin among them.
The artist was hurt deeply by the criticism. Referring to it, Ruskin tells this
anecdote: "He was passing the evening at my father's house on the day this
criticism came out; after dinner, sitting in the arm-chair, I heard him
muttering low to himself at intervals, 'Soapsuds and whitewash!' again and
again and again. At last I went to him asking why he minded what they said.
They he burst out: 'Soapsuds and whitewash! What would they have? I wonder what
they think the sea is like! I wish they'd been in
"The Slave Ship" belonged to this later period too. It was bought by an American and may be seen in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. "The Wreck of the Minotaur" is a picture of the same general character.
In 1842, he painted "Peace: Burial at Sea," in remembrance of Wilkie, and a wonderful picture it is, as solemn and sad as if it were painted on crape.
Reference has been made to Turner's intense desire for fame and his jealousy of anything derogatory to that fame. Perhaps at no time did he show this more than on "varnishing days" at the Academy. "Varnishing days" are those just before an exhibit opens in which the artists "touch up" their pictures and varnish them. Turner frequently accomplished wonders with a few, apparently random, strokes after his pictures were in place, and he often resorted to tricks to get the desired effect. One day he came in and found one of his pictures short of red in the foreground. Not having time to put in the required work on the canvas he demanded of the Committee that the seats immediately in front should be covered anew, he to choose the color and material. We do not need to be told that he selected red and thus gained his point without changing his picture.
At another time he gained the same result by affixing a great red seal to his picture. Certainly in fifty-six years of exhibiting he must have found ample opportunity for such tricks. Speaking of his effects reminds us that a very remarkable thing in Turner's method was that he usually painted with a short brush, with his face very near the canvas. He knew his art so well that he was perfectly sure what the effect would be.
It is better to study Turner's pictures than his life, for there never were, perhaps, in one man such contrary qualities. Before Thornbury wrote his extensive life of Turner he wrote to Mr. Ruskin to ask him if he did not contemplate writing the life of Turner. Ruskin replied that he had no notion of writing the biography and he added this suggestion: "Fix at the beginning the following characteristics of Turner in your mind, as the keys to the secret of all he said and did: Uprightness, generosity, tenderness of heart, obstinacy, irritability, infidelity. And be sure that he knew his own power, and felt himself utterly alone in the world. Do not try to mask the dark side." . . .
It is indeed a list of qualities impossible to consolidate into other than a detestable character and yet in the list there are good qualities. A Thames ferryman was told one day that the man he so often rowed across the river was a very great man. He retorted that he would not believe it of a man who always took a bottle of gin with him for inspiration and never gave him any.
He lived in dirt in his great house in Queen Anne street, his greatest pleasure there the petting of his tailless Manx cats. After his father's death, he had a housekeeper, Mrs. Danby, who did her best to keep him neat, but the carousals in which he indulged from Saturday night until Monday morning spoiled all her efforts.
Men have come to his galleries and paid large sums for his pictures, but, fond as he was of the shining guinea, he seldom extended to his most generous customer common courtesy. Once he delivered personally one of his highest priced pictures. When paid, he hesitated in such a way that the patron said, "It is not all right?" To which Turner responded that it was, except for the two shillings he spent for the hackney coach that brought him. Opposed to this grasping, we have instances, but I believe they are rare, when he bestowed small gratuities, and we know that he scrimped and pinched all his life long to save a fortune with which to found a home for unsuccessful male artists.
It had been a custom of Turner's to secrete himself for weeks at a time so that his best friends knew not where he was. In December, 1851, his housekeeper missed him, and, after some rummaging, found a doubtful address, which somehow she felt was the place of his hiding. Feeling sure that he must be ill, she sought out the house, which proved to be a humble cottage on the Thames in Chelsea. Here she found her master, and ill, as she had surmised. It seems he had had lodgings here for some time, where he had often gone of late. In the neighborhood he was known as "Admiral Boothe," for it was a popular notion that he was an old soldier. Turner had been sick for some time and so serious was his condition that he could not be moved to his own home; the day after Mrs. Danby found him, he died.
No sadder death bed can be imagined than this. What a moving thing it was! The greatest landscape-painter of England dying there in that wretched hovel beside the river, under an assumed name, with the sunlight which he loved so much barely struggling in through broken and smoky little panes of glass. There were none near who loved him and he had no religious faith to give him courage for the "great change." In his last bitter hour, if there was a thought of triumph in his heart, it must have been this: "Here the great Turner lies dying and his best friends do not know of his whereabouts." Small cause indeed for gratulation, and so that life of leaden ore with its veins of gold became a darkness indeed. Then followed a funeral as pompous as the death had been obscure, and he was buried, according to his request, in the crypt of St. Paul's, beside Reynolds.
After the funeral came the will of the man who had been known to be wealthy, although he lived in little better style than a mendicant. How this eccentric, taciturn man had disposed of a fortune equivalent to $700,000 was very naturally a matter of general interest. It was found that everything had been given to the nation except a few small bequests. Out of this money a home for unsuccessful artists was to be erected and named Turner's Gift.
He had written his own will, however, probably to save an attorney's fee, and so awkwardly had he expressed himself that the document would not stand the legal tests, and so the very object he wished to attain was defeated. His family easily broke the will and, after four years of litigation, it was settled that all his works, finished and unfinished, should go to the state, while his engravings and other property should go to his nearest of kin. The provision of the will by which £1000 was to be used for a monument to himself in St. Paul's crypt was carried out, but of course the home for unsuccessful artists was never built. It is a strong illustration of how a man's small qualities carry the day while his great philanthropic notions stand in abeyance—the defeat of a man by his own pettiness.
The pictures which he gave to the nation, except the two between the Claudes, are kept in a room by themselves in the National Gallery, London. Here one may study at his leisure Turner's art from its beginning-days to the "Whirlwind-time," when in his impetuosity he forgot all rules and dashed his paint upon the canvas without design, and then gave the melee some unintelligible name. There, too, hangs the palette used by the painter and one naturally speaks low and thinks strange thoughts as he stands before this little sheet of wood from which Turner coined the sunlight which is the greatest glory of his pictures.