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Turner & the Masters – should have formed a supergroup

Written by Satu Fox

turner moonlight

Jay-Z, price Coldplay and Girls Aloud in concert – that’s the closest analogy in recent times to the new Turner and the Masters exhibition at Tate Britain. There are so many greats in this revealing show that JMW Turner sometimes comes off the worst in the fistfights between complementary pictures hung side-by-side. Bursting with Rembrandts, viagra 40mg Canalettos and Titians, it gives a strong impression of how Turner felt in the world of art: in fierce competition with literally everyone who ever held a paintbrush.

It’s astounding from a modern perspective obsessed with originality to see how similar Turner’s works are in terms of style and composition to those of artists he admired. The Turner of this exhibition is constantly checking on what the person next to him is doing and trying to outdo them.


Turner was totally engaged with the artists who preceded him and those who were his contemporaries. An anecdote that reflects the artist’s temperament is that of the 1832 Royal Academy exhibition: during the “varnishing” time before the show opened to the public, Turner saw Constable’s riotous work “Opening of Waterloo Bridge” (above), which surges with colour, including bold reds. Turner went to his painting “Helvoetsluys” (below), a cool seascape – and added a tiny red buoy. Constable, now in possession of a painting that looked overblown in comparison, complained that “Turner has been here and fired a gun”.

 Helvoetsluys Turner


The style of other artists seems utterly up for grabs to Turner. His most famous paintings are those of boats and he was deeply influenced by the painters Jacob van Ruisdael and William van de Velde the Younger, whose “A Rising Gale” (above) is the mirror image of Turner’s “Dutch Boats in a Gale”, though Turner’s work is a moodier, more threatening piece. It is in these scenes of the sea that Turner finds his best-loved topic, but he experimented in what seems like every other niche to get there. His effort to portray rural life in the style of Nicola Tournier falls a little flat and his suggestive style finds a more sympathetic subject in the beauty of nature than in the details of a busy Venetian scene, as shown in a work overpowered by its companion Canaletto.

 turner 1

Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery and although Turner’s antics come across as potentially rather aggravating to other artists, who he copies with the express intent of bettering, he clearly holds those he challenges in high regard. Knowing a little about his relatively humble background, the self-promotion starts to seem like an effort to belong to the establishment art scene of the time, as well as being in the tradition of honing one’s craft by homage. This approach is still in currency: the Arctic Monkeys started out as a Libertines cover band so perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all.

Turner clearly wanted to be considered in the canon of great artists and that wasn’t possible without entering through the doors of the Academy and working in the Grand Style they had designated the high status method of the time. However, he showed just as much interest in the small-scale works of continental artists, perhaps because of their commercial nature: they were more suited for people’s homes and so presumably sold more like hot-cakes than canvases several metres high and wide.

turner snowstorm

Even among the starry lineup of fellow painters, Turner’s talent shines. Before he hits his stride, the efforts are hit and miss but among them are jewels, which he rustles up from oils, watercolours and ink. The Turner voice is encapsulated by the raging water of “Snowstorm” (above): a swirl of foam, shadow and the suggested sails of a boat. Light and dark and the sense of natural power are more important than seeing the face of the sailor at the helm. This was my favourite work of the show because it is entirely Turner but doesn’t trample on Ruisdael or any other artist. It’s confident in itself – at last! – and movingly beautiful; it reminded me that there is a lot to learn at this exhibition about Turner the man, but also plenty to remind about Turner the artist.

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