Whatever the weather
A single July week reveals Turner’s mastery and Beauneveu lions roar
During the first week of this month, at least 17 works by Turner were offered on the London art market. Four of them were juvenile or early examples, and only one a major oil painting, but, taken as a whole, this would have been a collection to make the reputation of any museum. indeed, the four watercolours with richard green at Masterpiece—among them, the Chatham illustrated here on June 14—two of which sold at the fair, could almost have done that on their own.
July 5 was truly remarkable, in that Sotheby’s offered not only the oil painting, Ehrenbreitstein, but also 10 watercolours, and Christie’s had two watercolours, one the first of his lifelong series of norham Castle.
Pride of place was naturally taken by the 36¼in by 48½in Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s Childe Harold (Fig 4), a sublime celebration of European romantic culture, which he exhibited at the royal Academy (ra) in 1835. Like norham above the Tweed, the castle of Ehrenbreitstein (Turner consciously mistranslated the ‘noble broad stone’ as bright) at the junction of the rhine and Moselle intrigued and inspired him over many years.
not only was the setting superb, but celebrated in Byron’s poem because of the monument on the riverbank to gen François-séverine Marceau-desgraviers (1769– 96), one of the true romantic heroes to be thrown up by the revolutionary Wars. He had risen from sergeant to general in just four years and his humanity was so admired by his opponents that, when he was killed by an Austrian sniper, the Archduke Charles sent a guard of honour to the funeral and the artillery of both armies fired salutes. Turner shows both Austrian and French troops by the obelisk erected on the grave.
Turner, like Byron, became a major figure of European romanticism and his preoccupation with the nature and effects of light was characteristic of it. in Ehrenbreitstein, he expresses it through his impressionistic technique; in the 203⁄8in by 29¼in Norham Castle: Sunrise (Fig 1), it could well have been topographical antiquarianism, but the great castle was secondary to the sunlight pouring through, touching the higher riverbanks and reflected in the water.
A wonderful touch is the way in which smoke from a fire bends as it hits cooler air over water; he might have learned this trick from his friend girtin.
It was at the RA in 1798, less than a year after Turner had dragged himself (in the words of Ian Warrell’s catalogue essay) out of bed at his overnight lodgings on the Scottish border to witness the dazzling sunrise above the castle from the banks of the Tweed. It won plaudits in the press: for the critic of St James’s
Chronicle, having ‘the force and harmony of oil painting. It is charmingly finished and the effect is bold and natural. In short, we think it the best Landscape in the present Exhibition’.
The other Turner lot at Christie’s was a previously unrecorded 7½in by 93⁄8in colour study, a view from a cliff over a bay. It dated from about 1822–3, when he was working on the last watercolours for his ‘Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England’, the project that established him as the foremost topographical painter of the day.
Most of the finished watercolours are now in museum collections, so it would be nice to think that this study, which came from a private collection, returned to one at the mid-estimate price of £185,000.
Turner’s major exhibit in 1802, the year he was elected RA, was
one of the Sotheby watercolours and another castle, this time, in his spelling, 25in by 372 ⁄3in Kilchern Castle with the Cruchan Ben Mountains, Scotland: Noon
(Fig 2). Again, light and weather predominate, and the weather is very Scottish.
Sunlight, clouds, a fierce, but probably short-lived, thunderstorm, thick mist, light rain and a stiff breeze are all shown.
The watercolour sections of the drawings sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s were the best that I remember for some time and, beside the Turners, I would like to feature his predecessor John Robert Cozens, still my favourite master of the English School. It is easy to be so seduced by the melancholy poetry of his landscapes that one fails to realise how accurate they are as topography.
I have just looked at a recent photograph from his viewpoint for the 101 ⁄8in by 14¾in View of Vietri and Raito, Italy (Fig 3),
which sold for £75,000 at Christie’s. Every feature of mountain and shore is recognisable in his simplified rendering.
Fig 1: Norham Castle: Sunrise exemplifies Turner’s fascination with the effects of light. £581,000
Fig 2: Atmospheric Kilchern Castle with the Cruchan Ben Mountains, Scotland: Noon. £464,750
Fig 4: Next week Wife of his Heart but not Queen Ehrenbreitstein, or The Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau. £18,533,750
Fig 3: Cozens’s watercolour View of Vietri and Raito, Italy. £75,000