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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking


Norham Castle, Sunrise, JMW Turner, 1845 - Done during the Industrial Revolution it has been suggested the amount of ash in the air might be reflected in Turner's paintings

Norham Castle, Sunrise, JMW Turner, 1845 - Done during the Industrial Revolution it has been suggested the amount of ash in the air might be reflected in Turner's paintings

JMW Turner’s watercolour sketches are shown in the National Gallery of Ireland every January. This event is a visual treasure trove, allowing the Irish public to see works of exquisite draughtsmanship. The works are drawn from the artist’s notebooks and were made during tours of Europe. They depict scenes from Venice, the Alps and rural France amongst others.

Who Was Turner?

JMW Turner (1775-1851) was an English painter and a leading light of Romantic painting. He is often considered as being the first artist to begin eschewing realism in favour of emotional atmosphere.

Turner was born into a middle-class family in London. His father was a wig-maker and barber. His mother died while he was quite young, in an insane asylum (he later produced works for the head of Bedlam Asylum). Turner was sent to live with relatives in the countryside until he joined the Royal Academy of Art at 14 years old, where he excelled.

From an early point Turner found himself to be a highly saleable commodity, making a fortune along the way and many friends in positions of influence. As Turner’s paintings changed in style he began to lose artistic influence as his audience struggled to understand his vision. His contemporary, and eternal British favourite, Constable, jeered Turner’s ” golden visions” by saying “he seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and airy.” Today this sounds more like a recommendation, especially from a painter whose scenes were as staid and mind-numbingly pastoral as Constable’s.

As he grew older Turner went a little cuckoo; removed from his old society surroundings, he lived under a pseudonym. He remained close to his father, who sometimes worked as his assistant. Turner died in the house of his mistress, supposedly looking out at the sunset. He left behind a small fortune for the support of future young artists. This sum has long since been consumed and is not linked with the media-fiendly Turner Prize which began in 1984.

Burial at Sea, JMW Turner, 1842

Burial at Sea, JMW Turner, 1842


In pursuit of the truest possible depiction of nature’s subliminity Turner departed from strict realism heading towards swirls of thin layers of painted, scratched and scraped into. He worked in literal details emerging from the haze to serve up something familiar to draw the viewer into his vision. These layer seems to shimmer with a luminescence few other painters have ever discovered. Turner had evolved from an exceptional landscape painter into a romantic figurehead.

The display in the National Gallery of Ireland, conveys this exact point in Turner’s career beautifully. Here we see washes of delicate watercolour pigment that have been attacked with a sharpened thumbnail with small details emerging – a craggy outcrop here, venetian roofs there. We are given the sense of Turner atop a mountain pass watching storm clouds boil overhead, with a town below him, far down an alpine track for goats and lunatics. It encapsulates the idea of a romantic artist buffeted by a harsh nature but persevering to produce something strong and delicate that tells us about the human condition and our place in the world.

In this way, romanticism was a cultural movement and riposte to the Industrial Revolution. Notable in all the arts, romanticism strove create an aesthetic that shook the reader/viewer/audience. It placed special emphasis on the sublime in nature – we hear (fanciful) tales of Wordsworth making walking for the sake of walking popular in the Lake District and of Turner being tied to a ship’s mast to observe a gale. Romanticism elevated nationalist notions, created the spark that gave rise to gothic literature and gave us lasting libertarian celebrities, such as Lord Byron, whose lives hold more interest than their oeuvres.

Rouen: the cathedral from the Place de la Haute-Vieille-Tour, JMW Turner, 1832

Rouen: the cathedral from the Place de la Haute-Vieille-Tour, JMW Turner, 1832

Honfleur from the water, at twilight, JMW Turner, 1832

Honfleur from the water, at twilight, JMW Turner, 1832

Honfleur from the south-east, JMW Turner, 1832

Honfleur from the south-east, JMW Turner, 1832

Turner on the Seine, Ian Warrell, Tate, 1999
The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-modern, Carol Strickland, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2 edition (5 Nov 2007)
Good Ol’ Wikipedia

This article was posted by on Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 at 22:20.
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