Glass reviews Turner‘s Modern World at the Tate Britain

TURNER’S Modern World has opened at Tate Britain. A  powerful exhibition spanning JMW Turner’s career, the show presents Turner and his paintings as explorations of the time he was living in; musings on rapidly developing industry, wars and politics that contrasted the classical focus of the Royal Academy’s tuition.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’, exhibited 1842, oil paint on canvas, Tate, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The exhibition offers a chronological spectrum of focus points over Turner’s career. It spans his early years, spent observing the shifting agricultural and coastal landscapes before him, at a time when farming and industry were shifting. These pieces are topographical; observational sketches of his surrounding landscapes. ‘Donkeys Beside a Mine Shaft’ (1805-7), a collaboration between Turner and Sawrey Gilpin, for instance, features a gin: a traditional rotating winch which had since been superseded by steam power.

Turner recorded the many of the triumphs and battles of the Napoleonic wars in his paintings. At first these pieces payed homage to Britain’s battles, but later he began to illustrate the human cost of war. In several paintings exhibited hordes of anguished figures scramble across the remains of ships, half submerged in an equally troubled sea. Bodies populate the foreground of several of Turner’s war paintings: ceaseless outlines of figures lost. His ‘Field of Waterloo’ (1815) refuses to take a side in the battle, but rather is gruesomely populated by the lives it took. Turner exhibited it alongside a line from Lord Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’: “friend, foe, in one red burial blent”.

Joesph Mallord William Turner, The Battle fo Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, 1806-8, oil paint on canvas, accepted by the nation ad part of the Turner Bequest 1856

It is notoriously difficult to read a definitive political agenda from Turner’s works, but this exhibition highlights a liberal leaning as his career progressed. Calls for parliamentary reform, Greek independence and freedom of expression are arguably written into his paintings.

A reproduction of his ‘Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)’, exhibited in 1840 is also on display. The painting is dominated by a rich sunset, but is cut through by a departing ship, and foregrounded by a bloodied sea from which dying hands reach. It depicts the the slave ship Zhong throwing its slaves overboard in order to claim insurance against their loss. The painting was described by John Ruskin as “the noblest sea that Turner ever painted…the noblest certainly ever painted by man”, a gross interpretation of a painting that records such a crime, which in turn spurred David Dabydeen’s poem, ‘Turner’, a postcolonial reimaging of colonial crimes committed by a shapeshifting figure known as Turner.  The curators address this: an important acknowledgment of the lasting reverberations of this piece.

Among plentiful oil paintings, the exhibition presents a few of Turner’s sketchbooks; palm-sized, inky records of scenes from his travels. Turner’s illustrative work is also on display, including etchings of his illustrations of Samuel Rogers’ poetry.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great WesternRailway, exhibited 1844, oil paint on canvas, The National Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Peace – Burial at Sea’, exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, Tate, accepted  by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The exhibition closes with rooms dedicated to Turner’s renderings of steam power, and an examination of the smoky, sea-misted painting style developed in his later years for which Turner is known.

The exhibition is a powerful exploration and celebration of Turner’s masterful observation and depiction of the political, industrial, and social causes which his work traversed.

by Connie de Pelet

Turner’s Modern World is on at Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG until March 3, 2021