The Tate Gallery, London, England

The Tate reminds me of why I contemplated this book.  A varied menu, with a jumble of Turners in a special exhibition.  The Tate has thousand(s) of Turners, some on show, others not.  So you cannot predict with certainty what will be on show.

I have picked a Turner in Philadelphia, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, and two at the National Gallery (Steam Speed, Calais Pier).  So my recommendation is see the four or five rooms devoted to Turner.  Stop, look, browse and choose one.  The selection of one will become a “must see”.

Always go to the back of the Tate and up a staircase to a study centre which has special exhibitions and many of his (Turner’s) small watercolours from his sketch books.

The Tate has a video demonstration by Michael Chaplin, a contemporary painter, demonstrating how Turner prepared and painted watercolours.

It replicates in a touch film show how Turner would have mixed colours, worked with wet paper for watercolour, how he ‘scratched’ watercolour surfaces.

See it, as it conveys the concept of Turner, drawing, painting, inventing, using graphite, chalk, pencil and a variety of brushes.  It also explains the creation of colours and when colours were invented.  The best exhibit on how art is created I’ve seen.

Turner was also experimental, painting architecture and nature in oil or watercolours.

He was a prodigious worker and star from eleven years on and was socially awkward on many but not all occasions:

Young Armstrong told me about Turner, who bequeathed a hundred thousand pounds sterling to found a retreat for poor or infirm artists.  He lived an avaricious life, with one old servant.  I remember having received him at my studio just once, when I was living on the Quai Voltaire.

He made only a middling impression on me:  he had the look of an English farmer, black coat of a rather coarse type, thick shoes – and a cold, hard face.  (Eugène Delacroix, 24 March 1855)

I was a good deal entertained with Turner.  I always expected to find him what I did – he is uncouth, but has a wonderful range of mind.  (John Constable to Maria Bicknell, 30 June, 1813)

Turner, however, scored a point over Constable when they were both finishing their pictures on varnishing day at the Royal Academy in 1832.

Turner was very amusing on the varnishing, or rather the painting days, at the Academy.  Singular as were his habits, for nobody knew where or how he lived, his nature was social, and at our lunch on those anniversaries, he was the life of the table.  The Academy has relinquished, very justly, a privilege for its own members which it could not extend to all exhibitors.  But I believe, had the varnishing days been abolished while Turner lived, it would almost have broken his heart.  When such a measure was hinted to him, he said, ‘Then you will do away with the only social meetings we have, the only occasions on which we all come together in any easy unrestrained manner.  When we have no varnishing days we shall not know one another.’

In 1832, when Constable exhibited his Opening of Waterloo Bridge, it was placed in the school of painting – one of the small rooms at Somerset House.  A sea piece, by Turner, was next to it – a grey picture, beautiful and true, but with no positive colour in any part of it.  Constable’s Waterloo seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room while he was heightening with vermilion and lake the decorations and flags of the city barges.  Turner stood behind him, looking from the Waterloo to his own picture, and at last brought his palette from the great room where he was touching another picture, and putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling, on his grey sea, went away without saying a word.  The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak.  I came into the room just as Turner left it.  ‘He has been here,’ said Constable, ‘and fired a gun.’  On the opposite wall was a picture, by Jones, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace.  ‘A coal,’ said Cooper, ‘has bounced across the room from Jones’s picture, and set fire to Turner’s sea.’  That great man did not come again into the room for a day and a half; and then, in the last moments that were allowed for painting, he glazed the scarlet seal he had put on his picture, and shaped it into a buoy.  [C.R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, of the late Charles Robert Leslie R.A. edited by Tom Taylor, 1860]

Turner was controversial.  Ruskin may have been titillated and pushed to extravagant praise but others were hostile.

Turner never married but he had a healthy sex drive.  When he died Ruskin went through his papers at death and in a fit of prudery destroyed all his erotic drawings.  Ouch!

His seascape, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) (three masted ships midst setting sun and fiery elements) drew this from The Morning Herald:

This is a picture in which truth, nature and feeling are sacrificed to melodramatic effect … In fact, it may be taken as a specimen of colouring run mad – positive vermilion – positive indigo; and all the most of glaring tints of green, yellow and purple contend for mastery. [Philip Ball, p. 161]

The Tate has all the English painters.  Other than Constable, Turner and Hogarth – they are not my personal cup of tea.  But as ever, the British are interesting and opinionated.  A group known as the pre-Raphaelites started in 1848 an auspicious year of revolution with a stated objective to return to the purity of form, colour and purpose of pre-Raphael time.  They loved the detail, intense colours and complex composition of Quattro Centro Italian and Flemish art.  They had a strain of religion – and ritual and turned to Catholic religious imagery.

The group used a technique of painting in thin glazes of pigment over a wet white ground – creating sparkling transparency and clarity.

The group was large and had associated with it Ruskin, the art critic, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poet.

The central artists were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Ophelia (1851-2)
John Everett Millais

This is an arresting canvas.  The water spooky in its clarity.  Ophelia’s face both living and life-like, with red blush of youth, parted lips, gossamer blonde eyelashes – there drifts by the blond teenager.  The flowers a living encroaching force.  Millais prepared for it for four months studying vegetation in Surrey.  The flowers have a symbolic meaning – the poppy death, daisies innocence, pansies love in rain.  The willow (symbol of forsaken love), the nettle growing within it (symbol of pain) about Ophelia’s head are painted with meticulous care over a wet white surface added for each day’s work.

This was a huge hit in Paris in 1855.

The model, Elizabeth Siddal, posed in a bath of water for a considerable time and got quite sick.  She posed in a bathtub warmed by lamps.  They went out, she got the chills.  Lizzie’s father threatened suit compelling Millais to pay her medical bill.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal the model has a web site today (  Millais used her as Ophelia but Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leading Pre-Raphaelite, was smitten by her.  He pursued her for ten years, married her, she died after a stillborn child and an overdose of laudanum in 1862.

Rossetti, a bad womanizer, was grief stricken.  He buried her with his manuscript of his poems he had done with Lizzie who was a poet in her own right.  Seven years later he wanted the poems back, so he exhumed her.  Rumour had it Lizzie was in gorgeous shape with her hair as red and flaming as in life.

Lizzie’s poetry:

Early Death

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee

Oh well, Shakespeare can rest easy, she’s no threat.

Millais was an artist not to be trusted.  Ruskin, the great critic was high on him.  Ruskin’s wife, Effie, was a model.  Ruskin may never have consummated his marriage with Effie.  Millais certainly did.  He ran off with Effie.  Ruskin, still supported many of the other pre-Raphaelites but not Millais.

Ruskin’s disastrous marriage ended by annulment with a physician testifying in Court as to non-consummation.  Shortly after Effie married Millais and had eight children – eight!

Ruskin occasionally dabbled in poetry, perhaps alluding to Effie:

Trust Thou Thy Love

Trust thou thy love:  if she be proud, is she not sweet?
Trust thou thy love:  if she be mute is she not pure?
Lay thou thy soul full in her hands, low at her feet;
Fail, Sun and Breath! – yet, for thy peace, shall she endure.

Chatterton (1856)
Henry Wallis (1830-1916)

Thomas Chatterton died of arsenic poisoning and was but 17 years and a bit.  The poisoning was either suicide or a current beater of venereal disease.  This kid had been around.  Precocious would be an inadequate word for a spooky solitary child enshrouded in books all day long at eight; at 11 he was a contributor to a magazine called Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal.  He wrote works ostensibly by a 15th century poet.  He conceived the romance of Thomas Rowley, an imaginary monk of the 15th century.  He sent his Rowley’s History of England to Horace Walpole who was taken in by the ruse of authenticity of Rowley being a real historical person for a short time.

In 1769 at the age of 17 Chatterton began to write for Town and Country Magazine and penned vitriolic political diatribes.  He also wrote lyrics, operas, satires in prose and verse.

At 17 years, nine months he retired to an attic in Brook Street (near the old Canadian Embassy) and drank arsenic.

He was of sufficient merit that John Keats’ sonnet “To Chatterton” appears in books of poetry.

O Chatterton!  How very sad thy fate!
Dear child of sorrow – son of misery!
How soon the film of death obscur’d that eye,
Whence Genius mildly flash’d, and high debate,

How soon that voice, majestic and elate,
Melted in dying numbers!  Oh!  How nigh
Was night to thy fair morning.  Thou didst die

A half-blown flow’ret which cold blasts a mate
But this is past:  the art among the stars
Of highest Heaven ….

Henry Wallis the artist used a famous author, George Meredith, as the model for Chatterton.  There is a theme throughout this period and that is ‘beware horney artists’.  Wallis ran off with Meredith’s wife after the painting was finished.  She died three years later.  Sweet revenge.

George Meredith the model here was a literary heavyweight after this picture.  Oscar Wilde wrote:  “Ah Meredith?  Who can define him?  His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightening.”  He implies that Balzac and Meredith were his favourite novelists.

Meredith, born in 1828, posed as Chatterton in 1856 making him 28 years old.  The striking dyed red red hair against the off-concorde grape purple of his breeches is the ultimate melodrama, candle smoke wafting to the open window, torn up manuscripts, dawn sky breaking.  Ah tears.

It’s fun.  Wallis’ method of painting was a bit bizarre.  He did an initial sketch, plunked it in water, let it dry a bit, then used a grey tint to block in the shade, then put on colour and let it dry.  When it was firm he used a hair pencil to add details.  For the light he would dab then rub it with a piece of bread.

Nocturne in Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (1872-5)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

The Tate Britain Companion to British Art by Richard Humphreys, Tate Publishing, 2001, says this of this faded green grey night silhouette over the Thames, the site of ceremonies and suicides, above a meteor:

“…Whistler would have himself rowed into the Thames by his boatmen the Greaves brothers, one of whom, Walter, he taught to paint, and would sketch and meditate on his scene into the early morning before returning to his studio.  Mixing his paints with a runny mixture of copal, turpentine and linseed oil, he would brush and pour the ‘soup’, kept in little pots, in layers onto an absorbent, rough-grained canvas, primed a dark rusty red, and often laid on the floor or a table.  The plaint was applied in such a way, frequently rubbed down, that this priming would show through the thin glazes, in the form, for instance, of the main structure of the bridge.  The effect of bursting fireworks would be achieved by delicately flicking paint at the surface.”

Oscar Wilde, cheeky as ever, opined that the work was “worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute”.

I have discussed elsewhere the famous art libel trial of Whistler v. Ruskin.  In that case the Judge, Baron Huddleston, examined this piece:

The ‘Nocturne in Blue and Gold’ was then produced, and the judge peered at it closely.  He then asked the artist what it was intended to represent:

Whistler:     It represents Battersea Bridge by moonlight.

Judge:     Is this part of the picture at the top Old Battersea Bridge?

Whistler:     Your lordship is too close at present to the picture to perceive the effect which I intended to produce at a distance.  The spectator is supposed to be looking down the river towards London.  [Their Good Names, pp. 77-78]

I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene.  As to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it.  To some persons it may represent all that I intend; to others it may represent nothing. [Whistler … p. 220]

Judge:    The prevailing colour is blue?

Whistler:    Yes.

Judge:    Are those figures on the top of the bridge intended for people?

Whistler:    They are just what you like.

Judge:    That is a barge beneath?

Whistler:    Yes, I am very much flattered at your seeing that.  The picture is simply a representation of moonlight.  My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour.

Judge:    How long did it take you to paint that picture?

Whistler:    I completed the work in one day, after having arranged the idea in my mind.

Attorney-General:    After finishing these pictures, do you hang them up on the garden wall to mellow?

Whistler:    I should grieve to see my paintings mellowed.  (Laughter)  But I do put them in the open air that they may dry as I go on with my work. [Their Good Names, pp. 77-78]

A witness for the defendant, Ruskin, was William Powell Frith, R.A., whose ‘Derby Day’ hangs in the Tate:

Frith gave the court some estimation of his narrative approach to painting which at times rivalled Dickens for anecdotal detail.  Frith had been subpoenaed by Ruskin’s counsel, knowing full well that the artist held finish and high detail as integral to a work of art, factors which did not concern James.  When asked by Bowen whether composition and detail were important elements in a picture, Frith responded:  ‘Very.  Without them a picture cannot be called a work of art.’

… Asked if ‘The Falling Rocket’ was a serious work of art, he replied, ‘Not to me.’  Nor did he think it worth two hundred guineas.  That also went for the picture Old Battersea Bridge, in which Frith failed to see anything of true water and atmosphere.  ‘There is a pretty colour which pleases the eye, but there is nothing more.  To my thinking, the description of moonlight is not true.  The colour does not represent any more than you would get from a bit of wallpaper or silk … ’ [Their Good Names, pp. 86-87]

‘You attend here very much against your will?’ Ruskin’s counsel asked him.

‘Yes, it is a very painful thing to be called to give evidence against a brother artist,’ replied Frith.  ‘I am here on subpoena.  I had been previously asked to give evidence, but declined.’

Cross-examined by Sergeant Parry, Whistler’s counsel, Frith contradicted himself when he admitted that in his opinion Whistler had ‘very great power as an artist’.  He was then asked what he thought about Turner, and in particular whether Turner was an idol of Ruskin’s.

‘Yes,’ Frith agreed, ‘and I think he should be an idol of everybody.’

‘Do you know one of Turner’s works at Marlborough House called “the Snowstorm”?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Are you aware that it has been described by a critic as a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’

‘I am not.’

‘Would you call it a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’

‘I think it very likely I should,’ said Frith, causing more laughter.  ‘When I say Turner should be the idol of everybody, I refer to his earlier works, but not to his later ones, which are as insane as the people who admire them.’

At this point the judge added to the general amusement when he intervened with the remark that somebody had described Turner’s pictures as ‘salad and mustard’.

No doubt Baron Huddleston was surprised to learn that the author of this description was the artist himself.  ‘I have myself heard Turner speak of his own pictures as salad and mustard,’ said Frith.  [Their Good Names, pp. 86-87]

Farms Near Auvers (1890)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

Small town north of Paris where Van Gogh spent his last months of life from May 1890 when he left the asylum in St. Remy until his death on July 29th.

I love the roofs, the slashes of the thatched roofs, all vitality and light.

He painted this in June and on July 27th he shot himself.  He wrote, “in my own work I am risking my life and half of my reason has already been lost in it”.

O The Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais) (1748)
William Hogarth (1697-1764)

This appeals to my British roots.  My mother, very English, daughter of a British Rear Admiral, loved roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  Like many Brits she had reservations about the French.  This saucy painting sums up the British attitude to the French, happily hostile, much superior (although Lord knows if anyone could be SUPERIOR it is the French, tant pis!) and it is a huge slab of beef.

Hogarth visited Calais in 1748 with his sketchbook.  It was a rare time of peace between France and England.  While waiting for the boat back to England Hogarth decided to sketch the post and drawbridge which still had the English arms as it was a captured port from 1346 until 1558.  He was arrested by the French but persuaded his captors he was but an artist.  However, he was held in the Lion d’Or awaiting the change of wind and a boat to London.  He was very angry at this, reinforcing his dislike of the French.

So Hogarth’s revenge was in the painting.

The servant barely carries a huge side of beef grained with tasty fat – my mouth waters at the mere look of it.

The cloth bears the inscription:  ‘For Madam Grandsire at Calais’.  Grandsire was the landlord of Lion d’Argent, the Inn at Calais frequented by the English.

The French soldiers, dressed in rags, slopping watery soup look with disbelief at the succulent British beef.  The fat French friar represents Hogarth’s take on the pre-revolutionary French church, which paid little taxes and followed its own selfish agenda – this friar may get a bite of the beef.

In the far back through the archway people kneel before the host.  The roast beef is another host with the monk presiding.

The figure in the right foreground is a Highlander, an exile from the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  Bonnie Prince Charlie led the Jacobites who wished the return of the Stuarts to the Crown and the return of the Roman Catholic religion.  Strange as it may seem, Bonnie Prince Charlie, a descendent of the man who would have been James III, was not a romantic figure, not at all.  He was an out of control drunk, raised as an exile in Rome.

Hogarth didn’t like the Jacobites.  He didn’t like the Highlanders who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie and followed him into England as far as Derby, they then retreated and were slaughtered at Culloden.  The Highlanders wore their clan tartans.  Charlie escaped.

Here in the picture is a Highlander exile slumped against the wall, with a raw onion and a crust of bread.  Hogarth wrote, “The melancholy and miserable Highlander, browsing on his scanty fare, consisting of a bit of bread and an onion, is intended for one of the many that fled this country after the rebellion in 1745.”  The food forms a snail shape, which the British thought was the same as frogs legs, a regular part of French food.

The title O The Roast Beef of Old England comes from Henry Fielding’s The Grub Street Opera (1731) which told of how the food “ennobled our brains and enriched our blood”.  The opera ridiculed the food of “all-vapouring France”.

Off to the left side is a portrait of Hogarth with his sketch book, a soldier’s hand is on his shoulder and the tip of the halberd is above him.  The moment of arrest.  This is a sort of Alfred Hitchcock intrusion.

Hogarth is most famous for his satires on morals and manners of the time.  The Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London houses Hogarth’s original eight paintings of The Rakes’ Progress (1732-33).  The decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, spendthrift son of a rich man who comes to London has a riotous time, drink, gambling, prostitution ending in the Fleet Prison, then Bedlam.  This was a scathing commentary of the wicked ways of London.  The Soane Museum is worth a visit as the house has architectural drawings – sketches by Piranesi and paintings by Canaletto.  He also did six paintings – Marriage-à-la-mode, satirizing upper class 18th century society, in the National Gallery.

The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27)
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

The theme of Resurrection is a medieval one, in terms of art presentation.  Souls rising, being reclaimed.  All of religion properly followed promised resurrection, a life everlasting.  The spooky bodies of Signorelli in Orvieto express it, bodies, green shaded, slipping, nude from holes, standing in a trance, insects emerging from their chrysalides.

How would you show it today?  Strange, I hadn’t thought of it.  Well Stanley Spencer did.  An eccentric Englishman who served in the first world war as a stretcher bearer – he was an odd duck.

Spencer saw his home town of Cookham as paradise.  The local church yard becomes the place of resurrection.  Christ is enthroned on the church porch cradling three babies with God standing behind.  Spencer introduces his friends and family, especially his fiancée, Hilda Carline.  Spencer had recently enjoyed sex, apparently a novelty and he was ecstatic, and it became a revelation to him, maybe even orgasm being a divine delight.

Spencer viewed resurrection:  “In this life we experience a kind of resurrection when we arrive at a state of awareness, a state of being in ‘love’.”

Stretched out along the side of the church are the prophets, Moses leading the line-up, the Africans close to Jesus maybe making whoopee …

Spencer stands naked in a sort of Michelangelo David pose and his brother-in-law to be crouched in a Michelangelo ignudi form.

The girl rising midst daisies is a take on Millais’ Ophelia.

Spencer’s patron, a judge, rises in his robes before Spencer.

Hilda, the fiancée, lies sleeping, a princess in a nest of ivy awaiting to be called to life with a kiss (Burne-Jones did a famous pre-Raphaelite painting called Briar Rose).

Hilda is also seen climbing over the stile to reach the boat so she can join the pleasure seeking going to heaven on the river boat.

The painting has a weavy underwater magic.

You must see Spencer’s work at Burghclere, his Resurrection of Soldiers and murals dedicated to the Great War.  [Sandham Memorial Chapel, near Newbury Hampshire – west of London, south of Oxford.  See for times of entry.]

Chain Pier, Brighton (1826-1827)
John Constable (1776-1837)

A surprising unsunny Constable.  A large canvas Chain Pier, Brighton.  It is rough in feel, rough in atmosphere over an angry sea.  The beach is more a war zone with industrial detritus, heavily impastoed  which increases the rough feel of the painting.  As ever there is the occasional crazy bather, only possible in Britain, who would venture into this icy broth in the name of happy holiday.

The sky is a moving rush.

Constable appears to have disliked Brighton:

“… ‘Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and off-scouring of London.  The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautifull expression) everlasting voice, is drowned in the din and lost in the tumult of stage coaches … and the beach is only Picadilly by the seaside.  Ladies dressed and undressed – gentlemen in morning gowns and slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers – footmen – children – nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen – preventative service men (with hangers and pistols), rotten fish and those hideous amphibious animals the old bathing women, whose language both in oaths and voice resembles men – are all mixed up together in endless and indecent confusion.’[Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery, An Illustrated Companion Tate Gallery Publishing, 1990, p. 49]

The Lady of Shalott (1888)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

In 2009 I saw an exhibition of John William Waterhouse.  At first the pictures were shocking in their sense of dazzle and whiteness.  White as pure white could be, Walt Disney Snow White.  The paintings all drama and sparkle.  The reproductions couldn’t capture the tone or luminosity of the white or gold.

The paintings at first utterly arresting.  Then watching phase by phase you become sated, and it is but a meal of tasty Chinese food, not lasting.

His picture The Lady of Shalott has, over the years, been the most popular painting in the Tate.  I’m not sure if most of the viewers have read Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott so the picture attracts because of its vamp luminosity, lush colours and melodrama.

The Lady of Shalott cursed by love and is only allowed to view the world in a mirror, but you guessed it – she can’t resist looking at Sir Lancelot of Camelot.  Whamo!  The mirror breaks and she ends life floating down the river to Camelot singing her last song.

Lord Tennyson’s poem:

The Lady of Shalott

… She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,

… She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
The curse is come and upon me!’ cried
The Lady of Shalott

… Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right –
The leaves upon her falling light –
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard here singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot;
For ere she readh’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.