The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

colours and sketches, trac­ing from boy­hood to death.

To­day, the Turner rooms at Tate Bri­tain are al­ways busy: even on a week­day many peo­ple mill about, and not all of them are stu­dents and tourists. In a 2005 BBC poll, peo­ple voted The Fight­ing Te­meraire Bri­tain’s great­est paint­ing. But it wasn’t al­ways so.

As Turner ex­per­i­mented with tech­nique and his work be­came more ab­stract, his pop­u­lar­ity faded even though his pres­tige re­mained. ‘‘ So, I am to be­come a nonen­tity, am I?’’ he asked bit­terly on his deathbed. He had been eclipsed by the hard-edged neo­clas­si­cism evolved by his con­tem­po­raries, the French his­tory painters such as Jacques-Louis David and JeanAu­guste-Do­minique In­gres. By the end of the 19th cen­tury, with the sim­i­larly hard-edged pre-Raphaelites all the rage in Bri­tain and the im­pres­sion­ists not yet fully un­der­stood, Turner’s be­quest of more than 300 works of art to the na­tion lan­guished in base­ment of the Na­tional Gallery, un­ap­pre­ci­ated.

When some of them were trans­ferred to the Tate and put on show in 1906, it was a rev­e­la­tion. ‘‘ By that stage, peo­ple had un­der­stood Monet,’’ says Ian War­rell, who cu­rated the Ade­laide show, stand­ing be­fore one of Turner’s mas­ter­pieces at the Tate. ‘‘ It took Bri­tish art col­lec­tors a long time to as­sim­i­late the im­pres­sion­ists. When they saw this thing, they thought, ‘ Oh, Turner got there first!’’

It was not un­til the Amer­i­can ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists re­turned large-scale ges­ture and emo­tion to the vis­ual arts reper­toire, some say, and drew the art world’s gaze away from con­ti­nen­tal Europe, that Turner’s for­tunes



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