Mention British landscape artists, and Turner’s name is usually the first to come to mind. These days that conjures up images of his late and most radical paintings, rather than those of his earlier career. In this article I look at a broad range of his landscape paintings, other than purely topographical views, and his more narrative landscapes.
Turner’s first notably successful ‘fine art’ painting was this nocturne of Fishermen at Sea from 1796, which started to build his reputation at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy. In compositional terms, it follows the principles laid down by van Mander, in concentrating interest in the centre of the canvas. There’s no repoussoir, of course, and its horizon is slightly lower than halfway down, to give ample room for his romantic sky.
Seven years later, Turner crowds the centre of this view of Calais Pier (1803) with the sails of French fishing boats, and adds asymmetry with the seemingly infinite sweep of the pier at the right. In place of the bright moonlight in the middle of the sky, there’s an encouraging patch of blue. The horizon remains below the midline.
Although Turner sought the dramatic, his more routine views are still carefully composed. In The Fish Market at Hastings Beach (1810) he has assembled each of the stages of the sale of fresh fish, from the fishing boats approaching the beach, through the horse and cart collecting their catch, to the wet fish laid out for sale in the right foreground.
Crossing the Brook (1815) is a reminder that van Mander’s tradition wasn’t dead by any means. Turner avoids formal symmetry with the stronger repoussoir on the left, and a woodland bank leading the eye down to the bridge in the left middle distance. From there we look down towards the vague horizon, which is probably Whitsand Bay, to the west of Plymouth.
Turner was a great admirer of Claude Lorrain, and in 1817 painted his highly Claudean Decline of the Carthaginian Empire. This looks along the line of a river with classical buildings on each bank, straight into the setting sun.
Turner’s own paintings of harbours, such as this of Dieppe which he painted in about 1826, were the product of numerous drawings and sketches, and sometimes repeated visits. He achieves balance rather than symmetry here, with the sail of the boat in the left foreground set against the frontage of buildings at the right. Further towards the town a cluster of sails marks the divergence along two roads into the distance, dominated on the left fork by a massive church tower. Once again, Turner’s horizon is well below the midline.
When Turner was painting dusk views of Petworth Estate in the late 1820s, as in this view of The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks from about 1829, he employed panoramic canvases usually intended for maritime paintings and used receding details at each side to give the impression of immense depth, again with a low horizon.
Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight (1835) employs similar compositional techniques, this time offset to a focus well to the left of centre to allow detail in the foreground at the right.
Four years later, Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino uses repoussoir at the right, and a parade of buildings to lead the eye past the mass of the Colosseum into the distant mist. He uses staffage extensively in the foreground, with a group of three goats at the right and sundry figures at the left. As this is a view from elevation looking down, the horizon is well above the midline for once.
By 1840, Turner’s style had become increasingly radical, and his composition had changed too.
His Slave Ship from 1840 relies more on colour than composition, although there are still lines of waves at the left and right to direct the eye towards the ship and the fiery sun. Little horizon can be seen, except in the middle of the canvas.
In The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842) it’s the clearly-defined mass of the Rigi which blocks any more distant view. The gestural forms of birds and fishermen in the foreground are the only other forms which aren’t vague and diffuse.
Several of Turner’s late masterpieces turn the whole canvas into a vortex, with the subject emerging near the centre. This is perhaps the ultimate development from his Fishermen at Sea of nearly fifty years before.
In Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) there are just two radials emerging from a vague and dazzling distance, together with a small boat on the river to the left.
By about 1845, in his Norham Castle, Sunrise, the little definition of the Rigi has been lost to a blur of colour. Even the cattle paddling in the river in the foreground are soft-focus. In the end, composition has been replaced by light and colour.