When you see a landscape painting by a landscape painter who has little or no record of painting narrative works, it is not difficult to make the assumption that any figures in that painting are most unlikely to be narrative in intent. And almost all the time, you’d be right.
Some of the greatest artists have, though, been exceedingly accomplished and prolific in painting both narrative and landscape works. Two who come to mind are Poussin and JMW Turner. In their paintings, it is notoriously difficult to know whether figures have narrative intent or not.
I will try to tackle the problems posed by Poussin in a later article; this tries to address those in Turner’s paintings.
In many ways, Turner was very traditional in his approach to landscape painting. He made very many views, showing different scenic locations around the UK and continental Europe. And he made many oil paintings which told well-known stories, often from classical myth, set in landscapes.
Thankfully Turner’s work is generally very well documented, and we know his titles, when most were first exhibited, and whether their presentation to the public was accompanied by clues of their intent, such as short texts or references to narrative sources, or inclusion in a particular series of scenic views.
So, for example, his Story of Apollo and Daphne (1837) may show very small figures in a much more expansive landscape, but Turner does not seek to mystify, he tells us what we are supposed to see. In any case, these figures could hardly be staffage: they are too incongruous.
We might like to try to read little sub-narratives into what might be going on among different figures in The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa (1842), but this is primarily a scenic view. We can speculate as to whether Turner had in his own mind some deeper meaning in the figure at the far right, who appears to be wearing Arab dress. But that is not what this painting is about.
Turner was extremely skilled at using human and animal figures to enhance the effect of a landscape view. In The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks (c 1829) he may well be drawing comparison between the cricket match which appears to be taking place in the left middle distance, and the two white buck deer engaged in battle in the right foreground. But, as in other similar dusk views around Petworth, the figures are not the dominant part of the painting, it is the landscape and effects of light.
Some of Turner’s paintings, such as The Opening of the Wallhalla, 1842 (1843), engage great numbers of extras which stretch into the far distance. Although they are integral to this view of a specific event, and there is supporting information in some of their baggage and behaviour, these are not the stars of the occasion in the way that buildings, location, landscape, and light are.
Earlier in his career, Turner used extensive staffage, as in his view of Pope’s Villa, at Twickenham (1808). These figures are (relatively) larger than those in his Story of Apollo and Daphne, but constructing a story from or among them is a diversion. It is not consistent with the title of the work, and there are no clues to tell us how they might cohere with the rest of the view.
Where Turner wants the viewer to read meaning into his figures, he generally points us in the right direction. There can be no doubt that the people in the foreground of his Wreckers – Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore (1833-4) are the ‘wreckers’ who deliberately put ships into danger so that they could steal valuables washed ashore after the vessel was wrecked.
It is far from clear how the men and women shown here, even in the detail below, are actually trying to wreck the ship seen in the distance, but Turner tells us that is their intent.
Others seem determined to read narrative into every one of Turner’s works that they can.
Crossing the Brook (1815) is one of Turner’s larger and more traditional oil paintings from quite early in his career. I see a view looking down from the north of Plymouth, towards the city in the far distance. In the foreground, two young women and their dog are crossing a small tributary of the River Tamar, which then runs under the large viaduct, down into the city, and so into Plymouth Sound.
The late Eric Shanes argues that is refers to two or three earlier paintings of the same title, none of which was a narrative work. He accepts a proposal by Jack Lindsay in 1966 that the two young women are Turner’s daughters, and that crossing this brook is a symbol of their transition to womanhood. It is thus Shanes’ case that the painting is nothing less than an allegory of female puberty.
Unfortunately, Shanes quotes Turner in his later correspondence (in 1845) referring to this painting:
“the Crossing the Brook Picture (Thank Heaven, which in its kindness has enabled me to wade through the Brook) – it I hope will continue to be mine – it is one of my children.”
Turner referred to several of his paintings as being his “children” although they had nothing to do with members of his family. Had Turner considered that crossing a brook was symbolic of the transition to womanhood, then it is hard to understand how Turner felt that the kindness of Heaven had enabled him “to wade through the Brook”.
Neither does Shanes explain how Turner’s estranged daughters by Sarah Danby, then aged 14 and 4 years, could possibly account for the two quite physically mature young women in the painting, nor the role of the object which the dog holds in its mouth.
There is great danger in looking for ‘human stories’ in figures which are quite probably innocent staffage. Turner’s magnificent watercolour of Scarborough, painted in about 1825 for his Ports of England, contains a wealth of detail in the activities of the figures in the foreground, shown below.
Closest is a young woman whose clothes, shoes and belongings are heaped with a basket, guarded by her dog, at the left. She is engaged in shrimping with a ramshackle net. Between the dog and woman is a starfish on the sand: this was apparently a common feature of Turner’s views of Scarborough made after 1809.
Behind at the left are washerwomen, in the centre a team helping to unload the wares from a cutter, and at the right a woman who appears to be bathing a child. Wrapping all these figures up into a coherent narrative would require a great deal of imagination and ingenuity, and has not a shred of support in the painting or its title.
Even Turner’s overtly narrative paintings can be intractable problems of interpretation.
One of the most famous of these is his Regulus (1828, 1837), one of three narrative works painted and exhibited in Rome in 1828, and reworked before exhibition in 1837. Interestingly, this is the painting which Thomas Fearnley painted a sketch of Turner working on during a ‘varnishing day’.
Regulus was a Roman general and consul for a short period in 267 BCE. He was successful in the First Punic War against the Carthaginians, but in 255 BCE was defeated by them and taken prisoner. He was released so that he could return to Rome to negotiate peace, but then urged the Roman Senate to refuse any such proposal.
Turner appears to have depicted him leaving Rome in a dusk view referring strongly to the landscapes of Claude Lorrain. When he returned to Carthage, he was tortured to death; one account claims that his eyelids were excised and he was exposed to the North African sun until he was blinded by it.
One problem which already arises in this association is that, while Turner is known to have been familiar with the account given by Horace of Regulus’ story, that did not include details of his torture and blinding, which in any case took place after Regulus had left Rome.
Nevertheless, it has been claimed that the dazzling low sunlight in this painting is a reference to Regulus’ fate.
The painting has an abundance of figures, none of which stands out as being a Roman general whose name is its title. John Gage has claimed that Turner puts the viewer in the position of Regulus, so that its dazzling light is intended to mimic the suffering which he experienced. This is supported by the fact that an engraving of this work gave it the title of Ancient Carthage — the Embarkation of Regulus.
Unfortunately, even if this painting were to represent Regulus departing from Carthage, he had not at that time been subject to mutilation to his eyes, nor does reference to that later act make any narrative sense at this stage.
Furthermore, unlike Rome which sits astride the River Tiber, ancient Carthage did not straddle any river of this nature. This view could have been obtained from looking along the length of its harbour, but that runs due south and could not show the sun low in the sky at any time of day.
When Turner tells us that his painting is narrative, reveals the story in its title, and still leaves us debating how to read it nearly two centuries later, we should be very cautious about trying to read in narrative when all the signs point to a regular landscape.
The art in reading Turner is knowing when to draw the line.
Shanes, Eric (1990) Turner’s Human Landscapes, William Heinemann. ISBN 0 434 69502 5.