Turner illuminated

Of all exhibitions ever devoted to Turner, the National Gallery’s new show Turner Inspired, In the Light of Claude would particularly have pleased the artist. Although Claude died in Rome in 1682, almost a century before Turner was born, the French painter was a lifelong obsession for the English one.

In his twenties, Turner is reported to have seen Claude’s “Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba” and burst into tears because “I shall never be able to paint anything like that picture!” Fifty years later, he bequeathed a pair of his own major works to the nation on condition they be displayed alongside it. They still are, and this scholarly exhibition is woven around a juxtaposition of these two artists that lies at the core of the National Gallery’s history.

The first British owner of the “Seaport” was John Julius Angerstein, a Lloyd’s underwriter and slave owner who in the 1800s paid a staggering £8,000 for it and another important Claude, “Landscape with Isaac and Rebecca”. Angerstein’s pictures later formed the nucleus of the National Gallery collection, created in 1824, and these works embodied Claude’s fusion of history and nature painting in the grandiloquent yet harmonious style that English connoisseurs thought unsurpassed. According to the critic William Hazlitt, Claude’s were “the finest landscapes in the world – that ever had been, or would ever be”.

In the early 19th century, Claude became the hottest name on the English art market, which thrived on the flood of top-quality works seeking refuge in London after the French revolution and subsequent unrest in Rome. Among these were the “Altieri” Claudes, “Landscape with the Father of Psyche Sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo” and “Landscape with the Arrival of Aeneas before the City of Pallanteum”, which open this show. They too are seaport compositions, calm, elegantly composed, framed by trees, suffused with golden sunlight, but they are most famous as an index of changing taste. William Beckwith, a flamboyant bisexual aesthete and also a slave owner, purchased them for £6,825 in 1799, and sold them for £10,000 in 1808. When they reappeared at auction in 1947, they fetched £5,300.

It is easy to see why Claude’s quiet idylls were so popular in a Britain reeling from the first devastating effects of industrialisation – and also why they barely resonated in the tumultuous 20th century. Today, it takes an effort, in the darkened, sober galleries of the Sainsbury Wing, to understand what Turner was sobbing about. But then you see the oedipal drama: how Turner adapted, unpicked, reassembled, challenged, twisted the classical master to break through to his own radical romantic language of pure light and colour.

Anxiety of influence is a modern concept, and Turner’s impassioned reappropriations are one of the things that make him feel so contemporary. In an early delicate watercolour, he reinterprets “Caernarvon Castle” to resemble an Italianate scene – Angerstein paid 40 guineas for this, launching Turner’s career – while in “The Festival upon the Opening of the Vintage of Macon” (1803), he makes the curving Thames at Richmond, seen through a diffused outburst of sunlight, the setting for a bucolic southern party.

When he came to choose the pair of masterpieces to leave to the National Gallery, Turner carefully balanced northern and southern idioms. “Sun Rising Through Vapour” (1807) demonstrates the influence of the Dutch marine school in its detailed everyday depiction of sails, riggings and fishermen at work, though the tonal unity derives from the Claude-like warm sunny glow. Its companion, the brilliantly dawn-lit “Dido Building Carthage” (1815) follows closely the structure of Claude’s “Seaport” and, as in Claude, makes the sun the dramatic focal point.

Claude’s ‘Seacoast with Perseus and the Origin of Coral’ (1674)

But shortly afterwards Turner painted a pendant, “The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire” (1817), where the sun is setting, the mood is sombre, the people are huddled and frightened and a toy boat, launched by eager boys in “Dido”, founders symbolically in the shadows. Already the melancholy and turbulence here places Turner’s 19th-century sensibility far from the Mediterranean serenity of Claude.

By the 1830s, Turner was expressing that pessimism, and his sense that history was doomed to repeat itself in cycles of destruction, in vortex-like compositions such as “Regulus”, where the seaport is almost annihilated in the blinding white light sucking in water, boats, men – a violent glare evoking the torment of the Roman general whose eyelids were cut off by the Carthaginians. This hangs alongside the exhibition’s sole significant loan, Washington’s “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night”, where Claude’s structured perspective is again borrowed only to be destabilised: Turner moves the moon off-centre to make the image more real, less stagey, for a panorama of modern life – the stunning contrast between the natural, cool glow of the moon on the river, and the menacing flares of the coals of industrial England.

By the end of his life, Turner’s chief interest was the effect of light, developed especially in his late watercolours. In “Venice: The Giudecca Canal” and “Venice: The Punta della Dogana at Sunset”, he engages with the unique character of Venetian light, how it envelops space and is intensified by reflection in the lagoon: marvellous works a breath away from impressionism, yet, in the light that pervades and gilds everything, unmistakably also still bearing the influence of Claude.

Turner's 'Crossing the Brook' (1815)

As a tightly focused home-grown exhibition of the sort encouraged by its director Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery’s show cannot be faulted: it is clear, enlightening, full of masterpieces yet cheap, since almost everything comes from British collections. But it is also an unoriginal and very academic way to present a painter of the immediate world around him, who believed that “every look at nature is a refinement upon art”.

Turner in recent years has been stuck in art-historical grooves – this show merely amplifies themes from Tate’s Turner and the Masters of 2009, while Turner Whistler Monet at Tate in 2005 and Tate Liverpool’s Turner Monet Twombly this summer similarly seek to underline the artist’s position in the canon. Themed interpretations are yet more limiting – Margate’s current Turner and the Elements, though including fine works sympathetically installed, is intellectually idiotic.

Turner is not only the greatest British artist in history but one who, in the way he converged and collapsed subject, meaning, expression, and the mundane and the poetic, remains pertinent now. Let us hope for a serious monographic exhibition soon – one courageous enough to forget ancestors and descendants, and curatorial bugbears, and simply display all Turner’s best paintings and watercolours, decade by decade, so that we can fully experience their vibrancy and relevance to the 21st century.

‘Turner Inspired, In the Light of Claude’, National Gallery, London, to June 5; www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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