JMW Turner's ‘Snow Storm – Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth’
‘Snow Storm – Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ (1842) © Tate

When James Bond meets Q at the National Gallery in Skyfall, the picture they survey is Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”. “Grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away to scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?” asks Q. “A bloody big ship,” answers Bond, but we all know he is musing on his own decline and Britain’s.

Very few paintings hold that level of instantly comprehensible metaphorical weight. “The Fighting Temeraire” is Turner at his most powerfully populist: a painting beloved from its first showing in 1839 – “a scene which affects us almost as deeply as the decay of a noble human being” applauded The Morning Chronicle – right up to today. A recent BBC poll voted the picture the UK’s favourite artwork.

Turner’s relationship to British history, and how his works forged national and cultural identity, is the intriguing current of Turner and the Sea, the National Maritime Museum’s new exhibition at Greenwich. The “Temeraire”, its sunset casting a tragic glow over the sailing ship towed off to Rotherhithe by an upstart modern steam tug, takes central place, flanked by two stellar works: “Venice: The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore” (1834) and “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” (1835), paired commissions from Manchester textile manufacturer Henry McConnel, now loaned by Washington. They are three piquantly different subjects and painterly treatments – but together the trio form a symbolic commentary on 19th-century terror of change, decay, corruption: the flipside of the English industrial ascendancy that enabled McConnel to afford the works.

“Venice”, a crystalline view of the customs house seen as if from a gondola, the gilded buildings sparkling in the Grand Canal, is lustrous and serene. But it fixes an emblem of the city’s trading and maritime past, read in 19th-century Britain as a warning: empires wane and fall. In The Stones of Venice (1851-53), Ruskin would evoke Turner’s images of this “ghost upon the sands of the sea . . . so bereft of all but her loveliness that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City and which the Shadow” to prophesy that imperial Britain would follow decadent Venice to “be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction”.

“Keelmen” is “Venice”’s opposite: a noisy, flashy, industrial nocturne, depicting barge-workers on the Tyne estuary. An iridescent moon throws a natural silvery glow across the water, contrasting with the man-made orange/red flares as the coal is transferred amid clouds of soot – a romantic image twinning industrial glory with menace. The structure of the painting, however, is classical – based on “A Seaport” (1644) by Turner’s hero Claude, whose order and calm is destabilised in Turner’s brilliant sky, illuminated by gradations of moonlight into a dense, whirling vortex.

Vortex-like compositions, suggesting history’s repetitions as doomed cycles of catastrophe and of man sucked to his fate recur in Turner. They are the violent side of the Victorian anxiety, which found sentimental expression in the “Temeraire” – and they shocked contemporaries. “Soapsuds and whitewash” was the response of one critic to “Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842), built up from looping swaths of dark/white impasto and conflicting diagonals, and exhibited with the provocatively realist subtitle “The Author was in this Storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich”.

At Greenwich, this is joined by further maelstrom masterpieces from the US: the Clark Institute’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to warn Steam-boats of Shoal-Water” (1840), in which smoke, steam, spume and spray swirl into dissolutions of pure light and colour; Yale’s “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” (1832), recording a storm Turner encountered in the Highlands in a steamboat, at the moment when “the sun getting towards the horizon burst through the rain-cloud, angry”. Romanticism’s great theme was man’s insignificance before nature’s overwhelming force; Turner’s whipped-up vortices gave it a new language, infused with Victorian pessimism about impermanence and meaninglessness. Even more than mountains, the sea was Turner’s natural element, allowing the most extreme expression of his fatalism.

JMW Turner's ‘Calais Pier'
‘Calais Pier, with French Poissards Preparing for Sea: An English Packet Arriving’ (1803) © The National Gallery, London

It was also a subject, resonant for an island nation, affording political subtext. Aged 21, Turner launched his career at the Royal Academy with a marine nocturne, “Fishermen at Sea” (1796); Greenwich suggests the sombre scene of lonely fishermen under a moonlit sky, with the English coast stretching into the distance, was coloured by fear/defiance of war with France. In “Calais Pier, with French Poissards Preparing for Sea: An English Packet Arriving” (1803), painted after Turner’s first trip abroad, the Union Jack flutters from a storm-tossed British ferry in a dynamic composition that confidently extends the scope of his Dutch marine models.

The 12ft royal commission “The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805” (1824) has, by contrast, always been an embarrassment. Banished from St James’s to Greenwich in 1829 because its realism – a focus on dying sailors as well as on the victorious ships – grated, it looks today like a patriotic pantomime. But its story does help illustrate how, more than for any other British artist, responses to Turner have changed with time – especially to the seascapes.

In the 19th century, harmonious, classicising pictures, such as “Ships Bearing up for Anchorage (‘The Egremont Seapiece’)” (1802), an intricate silver-grey-buff pattern of sails and rigging in carefully modulated alternating light and shade, won immediate acclaim and buyers. But less clear-cut, more chaotic compositions were condemned – Hazlitt’s “pictures of nothing, and very like”. Modern taste, however, since the mid-20th century, is for the Turner of pure sensation, effects of light, air, wind and colour, as abstractions. These mostly later works were largely unseen in the artist’s lifetime and for decades beyond: Yale’s exquisite, condensed “Off the Nore: Wind and Water”, for instance, or spare oil sketches, posthumously titled by sketchy descriptions “Red Sky over a Beach”, “Sea and Sky”, perhaps unfinished, which lay undiscovered in the Turner Bequest.

Including rarely displayed watercolours and works by Turner’s contemporaries, Greenwich maps the evolution towards a late style within a broadly chronological hang striving for accessibility (“M for Marine”, “Trafalgar Squared” are among section headings). The personal/social storyline is, presumably, a response to overly art-historical approaches in all London’s Turner shows of the past decade (Tate Britain’s Turner Whistler Monet in 2005 and Turner and the Masters in 2009, and the National Gallery’s Turner and Claude pairing last year). The result is not a perfect distillation of Turner’s marine painting – no “Peace – Burial at Sea” (1842) or “The Slave Ship” (1840), no history pictures such as “The Parting of Hero and Leander” (before 1837) – but it is a vibrant, engaging show encouraging us to perceive the myriad ways in which Turner was, as Ruskin wrote, “the man who beyond doubt is the greatest of the age . . . at once the painter and poet of the day”.

‘Turner and the Sea’, to April 21 2014, National Maritime Museum, London,

May 31-Sept 1 2014, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts,

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