I am fast approaching my 300th edition of this blog and many of you may think it strange that in all that time I have never featured an artist much loved by many, Joseph Mallord William Turner. In some ways, of course, it is an omission but I have to be honest and state that Turner is not one of my favourite artists. Yes, I am aware that statement is artistic anathema and pictorially sacrilegious but everybody’s likes and dislikes are different. I am a person who loves detail and clarity in a painting and the haziness” of a lot of Turner’s painting is just not for me. I was at a local gallery the other day and when asked which was my favourite painting on display, I pointed to a mountain scene and the person who asked me to decide commented that it was too much like a photograph for his liking. There lies my dilemma. I don’t want a framed photograph on my wall but I do want clarity of detail. I am happy with an idealised landscape. I just want to study the intricate details of the artist’s work.
Less about my likes and dislikes and on to today’s offering which is one of Turner’s paintings, which is without the haziness that I dislike. It is entitled Calais Pier and was completed by Turner in 1803 and is in the safe keeping of the National Gallery in London. I touched briefly on Turner’s life a few days ago when I featured the artist Thomas Girtin, a friend and contemporary of Turner. I know many books have been written about Turner’s life but let me briefly go through the life of today’s artist
Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, London. His father, William Gay Turner was a wig maker and when they became unfashionable he became a barber. His mother was Mary Mallord Marshall. His mother and father had married in 1773 and a year after Turner was born his mother gave birth to his sister, Mary Ann. Sadly and with devastating consequences she died in 1786, at the age of eight. Her death virtually destroyed her mother who became mentally unstable and eventually in 1799 she was committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital Mental Hospital (Bedlam) where she died in 1804.
Because of his mother’s mental problems, and the problems arising from her condition, the young Turner left home for about a year and went to live in Brentford with his mother’s brother, Joseph William Mallord Marshal. Whilst living with his uncle’s family he attended the John White’s School. It was during the time when he was being brought up by his uncle’s family that Turner started to show an interest in art. For holidays he would often be taken to Margate and it was around this time, 1786, that eleven year old Turner first signed and dated his drawings of the seaside town and the surrounding areas. These early drawings of his were often proudly displayed by his father in his shop window. After early schooling, Turner, aged fourteen, was accepted as a student at the Plaister Academy of the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789 where he studied for exams which would afford him membership of the Royal Academy itself. After just one year, when he was fifteen he was accepted into the Royal Academy, which at the time was headed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great English painter, and who was on the selection panel of the artistic establishment. Turner went on to have his first painting, a watercolour entitled The Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth, accepted into the Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1790 and six years later he had his first oil painting entitled Fisherman at Sea shown at the exhibition. Turner exhibited some of his work at almost every subsequent Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions for the rest of his life.
After leaving the Royal Academy Schools, Turner embarked on many European journeys, visiting Paris where he studied in the Louvre, visiting Switzerland and Italy where he spent some time in Venice. He also often travelled around Britain with his friend and fellow artist, Thomas Girtin. During one of his British journeys when he was twenty-two, he visited Otley, Yorkshire and met and became great friends with Walter Fawkes, a wealthy landowner and Member of Parliament, who was to become one of Turner’s patrons and who commissioned many works from the artist.
Although Turner never married, he did have two children by his mistress Sarah Danby whom he met in 1799. Sarah, a widow nine years his senior, gave birth to two of his children, Evelina in 1801 and Georgiana in 1811. Art historians would have us believe that Turner over time became very eccentric and only had a handful of close friends. However, he was always close to his father and for thirty years his father lived with Turner. His father died in 1829 and this devastated and depressed the artist. Not only had his father been supportive of him he would often act as his studio assistant.
In 1833, on one of his journeys back to Margate, Turner met Sophie Caroline Booth who had been recently widowed and lived in the town. They became lovers and in the 1840’s she bought herself a small cottage in Chelsea and Turner went to live with her. He was to remain with her until his death at the house of his lover in December 1851. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral and lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds.
I chose the featured painting today, Calais Pier as I have been associated with the sea and ships almost all my life and I am only too aware of the ferocity of the seas around the British and Channel coasts and so in some way it was a return to my seafaring past when I was in ships and had to watch helplessly when my ship battled against the ferocity of a storm and the mountainous seas which the winds had whipped up. This painting by Turner is based on his own experience of rough weather during his first ferry crossing to France in 1802 at which time he made many sketches of the crossing from Dover to Calais. We need to remember that in those days there was no such thing as weather forecasts and so vessels would put to see and were at the mercy of the weather.
We have before us a sombre scene of vessels being wildly buffeted by the gale-force wind and giant waves. In the centre of the work with the dark sails we see the Dover-Calais ferry crammed full of people. The English flag flutters wildly at the top of the mast. Next to it, with the white sail, is a French fishing boat which looks to be perilously close to the English ferry. The sails and the deck of this vessel are spectacularly lit up by a shaft of sunlight which has managed to penetrate the black storm clouds. Pulling away from the quay and heading into the rough seas, we see another small boat with its fishermen. One of its crew can be seen remonstrating wildly towards the other fishing boat, maybe to alert them to the dangers of colliding with the ferry. It seems a foolhardy act for the men to set sail in the little boat considering the ferocity of the storm or risk being crushed by the waves against the pier itself. It is almost as if maybe the storm has taken everybody by surprise. On the pier we see people trying to carry on as normal. Women wearing local hats and wearing wooden clogs gather the morning catch of what looks like skate and set about gutting the fish.
This is wonderfully dramatic painting and whereas we are use to being able to see and hear the rough seas and the sound of violent storm on television, in the days of Turner it was just the magic of the artist who could bring such things to the attention of people. Turner has magically given us an insight into the happenings during a storm at sea. We can almost hear the people shouting to be heard. We see the wild billowing of the ships’ sails and see and sense the sound of the crashing of the waves against the pier. We almost feel that we are there on the Calais Pier.
Turner exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1803 but like many of his works it was not well received. Many thought it was an unfinished work especially the foreground.