Follow Us on Twitter

Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION entitled Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld will be on display at The Courtauld Gallery from October 30, 2008 to January 25, 2009.

Nine magnificent watercolours, recently bequeathed by the late Dorothy Scharf, are among a collection of thirty outstanding works by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) held at The Courtauld Gallery.

The Courtauld’s collection includes work from across the artist’s career, ranging from an important early view of the Avon Gorge, Bristol, made when Turner was just sixteen years old, to examples of the monumental highly finished watercolours of his maturity and the celebrated expressive late works.

Throughout his life Turner orchestrated his career with fame in mind. Intensely ambitious, he travelled the length and breadth of Britain and the Continent in search of inspirational and marketable views. Following in his footsteps, the exhibition traces the evolution of his extraordinarily inventive and entrepreneurial approach to the making of landscape in watercolour. The exhibition stresses the vital contribution of patronage and print publication and the role of collectors and friends, most notably the influential art critic John Ruskin, as champions and promoters of his work.

The son of a Covent Garden barber, Joseph Mallord William Turner spent his early years acquiring the traditional skills of architectural draughtsmanship, learning also from earlier topographical watercolourists such as Paul Sandby and Edward Dayes. He showed precocious talent, entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1789 at the age of thirteen and having a watercolour accepted for the prestigious annual exhibition only two years later. He was elected an Associate at twenty-four, the youngest age allowed, becoming a full Academician in 1802. The Academy was then housed in the Strand block of Somerset House, now home to The Courtauld Gallery.

Focusing on Turner’s early career, the opening section of the exhibition explores the ways in which he set about achieving success. When only sixteen he embarked on the first of his many sketching tours around the country. An avid self-promoter, Turner was quick to recognize the value of prints for disseminating his art to the widest possible audience, and from the 1790s his career revolved around travelling, painting and publishing. Accurately rendered topographical watercolours such as Chepstow Castle, produced as a model for an engraving (the second print to be made after his work) for the popular Copper-Plate Magazine, show a technical mastery that was to earn him a fortune as a mature artist.

A later section of the exhibition is dedicated to his watercolour designs for book illustrations, most notably Colchester, Essex, made in preparation for an engraving for Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1827-38), the largest and most ambitious series of engravings ever produced from Turner’s designs.

On his first visit to the Continent in 1802, made possible by the brief peace between Britain and France, Turner headed for Switzerland, attracted by the stupendous Alpine scenery and aware that such awe-inspiring views of mountains, lakes and rivers were increasingly sought after by the art-buying public. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, he took to travelling annually through France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, filling sketchbooks with visual records that he later used as reference material for watercolour and oil painting subjects. The superb view of Rome from San Pietro in Montorio was painted for Turner’s close friend and major patron Walter Fawkes in c.1820. This work celebrates the artist’s first visit to Italy in 1819 and reflects his response to its beauty, grandeur and light.

Turner’s habit of rearranging the landscape for a more dramatic effect is evident from the exaggeratedly steep mountain slopes he depicted in Mont Blanc from above Courmayeur. The atmospheric image of On Lake Lucerne looking towards Fluelen, on the other hand, presents a radically different approach to landscape – a poetic vision that intensified in the 1840s when, dogged with ill health in the last decade of his life, Turner became increasingly conscious of his mortality. By this time, light and colour and the transitory effects of weather were his prime concern, most vividly evoked in the semi-abstract images of sand, sea and sky displayed in the final section of the exhibition.

In his later years, Turner paid frequent visits to the Kent coastal resort of Margate, attracted by the wide expanse of sea and ever-changing sky. Works such as Heaped Thundercloud over Sea and Land, Storm on Margate Sands and Margate Pier, exemplify Turner’s response to the drama of nature observed on the Kent coast. One of the highlights of the exhibition, this group of watercolours once formed part of the same sketchbook that was later acquired by the artist and critic John Ruskin from Sophia Caroline Booth, Turner’s landlady and companion.

These late works are characterised by a powerfully expressive experimentation which pushed the boundaries of watercolour technique. Ruskin described Margate Pier as a ‘study of storm and sunshine…entirely magnificent…’ He was equally enthralled by Dawn after the Wreck, writing ‘some little vessel – a collier probably – has gone down in the night, all hands lost: a single dog has come ashore. Utterly exhausted, its limbs failing under it, and sinking into the sand, it stands howling and shivering.’ Ruskin’s passion for Turner’s late watercolours and his sentimental interpretation of their subject matter helped to perpetuate Turner’s fame as England’s greatest painter in watercolours.

The works from The Courtauld Gallery will be supplemented by closely related loans from Tate and private collections, enabling viewers to trace the development of certain compositions, including the celebrated panoramic view of the Crook of Lune, from early sketches and exploratory ‘colour beginnings’ to finished watercolours and, in some cases, published prints.

Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld will be accompanied by a special display of selected British watercolours bequeathed to The Courtauld Gallery by Dorothy Scharf in 2007. This will offer an opportunity to consider Turner’s work in the broader context of British watercolour painting of the 18th and early 19th century.

Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld is sponsored by The Bank of New York Mellon.

Admission (Included in admission to permanent collection): Adult £5, concessions £4, free admission on Mondays from 10am to 2pm, free at all times for under 18s, full-time UK students and unwaged.

Times: Daily from 10am to 6pm, last admission at 5.30pm.

Catalogue: A fully illustrated catalogue, Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from The Courtauld Gallery published by The Courtauld Gallery and the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, accompanies the exhibition. Price £20.

Gallery Talks: There will be a programme of talks by curators and Courtauld students, free with admission.

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN.

Telephone: 020 7848 2526.