Turner and the Great Age of Watercolour at Petworth

JMW Turner ‘A First Rate Taking in Stores’, c.1818 © The Higgins, Bedford/National Trust
JMW Turner ‘A First Rate Taking in Stores’, c.1818 © The Higgins, Bedford/National Trust

‘Turner & the Age of British Watercolour’ has just opened at Petworth House and runs until 12th March 2017. The exhibition celebrates the British pre-eminence in the medium of watercolour painting in the mid-18th and early 19th century. The work is predominately drawn from the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, and includes a breadth of artists and paintings of extraordinary quality.

Curated by Andrew Loukes of the National Trust, the exhibition illustrates the development of the British watercolour tradition century and its role in establishing our national and patriotic identity.

The story is told with JMW Turner at its centre. Although Turner painted numerous watercolours at Petworth his great patron and friend, The 3rd Earl of Egremont, did not acquire any. This jewel-like show brings watercolours to Petworth House which speak into the ravishing house collection.

The exhibition makes apparent how British watercolour painting moved from recording the topographical to a romantic, personal impression of a particular place. Many argue that the poetic landscape of the romantic imagination is born out of Constable and Turner’s work.

It was Dr Thomas Munro, the chief physician at the Bethlem (Bedlam) Royal Hospital, who identified the genius of the artist John Robert Cozens. Cozens was admitted to the asylum suffering a nervous breakdown. Munro bought the collection of his work and would share it with a generation of British artists. There are watercolours by both men on display in the exhibition.

Turner was exposed to John Robert Cozens’ landscapes whilst working at Munro’s informal academy with his friend and contemporary, Thomas Girtin, in 1795. Turner would later acknowledge the importance of Cozen’s works on his own development as an artist.

JMW Turner would famously break free from the confines of convention and tradition recording impressions of the elemental in nature.

Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire, was a man with a patriotic disposition and an important patron to Turner. His son, Hawksworth Fawkes, watched Turner as he painted ‘A First Rate Taking in Stores’ and would write ‘He began by pouring wet paint onto the paper until it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutia came into being’. As you observe this watercolour in the exhibition it reveals depth and detail which contrasts with the scale, atmosphere and movement which Turner’s technique creates.

Thomas Girtin ‘Jedburgh from the River’, c.1798-99 © National Trust
Thomas Girtin ‘Jedburgh from the River’, c.1798-99 © National Trust

The exhibition also looks at the topographical recording of landscapes and buildings which would come to define a sense of British identity. Thomas Girtin’s topographical study ‘Jedburgh Abbey from the River’ combines a delicacy of topographical recording with broad washes of strong colour which are typical of his later more spacious, romantic works. Turner held Girtin’s work in the highest regard.

Francis Towne ‘The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills’, c.1799 © National Trust
Francis Towne ‘The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills’, c.1799 © National Trust

The exhibition also seeks to explain the influence of recording the Grand Tour on British watercolour painting. Artists like Francis Towne, who was a contemporary of John Robert Cozens, were employed in the late 18th century to record the scenes of the Grand Tour as they travelled with their patrons. I love the delicacy of Towne’s watercolour ‘The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills’. It is based on studies in his sketchbooks from his European travels in the 1780s.

‘Turner and the Age of British Watercolour’ is a visually beautiful show which will delight you. The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex until the 12th March 2017. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth or by telephoning 0844 249 1895. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

 

The Original White Cube Gallery

J.M.W. Turner’s watercolour of the North Gallery at Petworth

How modern the 21st century gallery interior seems to us with its light, white interiors – but is it really modern?

This week we are at Petworth House, in the company of the National Trust’s inspirational Exhibitions Manager, Andrew Loukes. The Petworth House team are preparing for their spring opening on Saturday 19th March 2016. All around us the house’s treasures are emerging from beneath their winter covers.

The Classical sculpture at Petworth
The Classical sculpture at Petworth
George Wyndham O’Brien (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont
George Wyndham O’Brien (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont

As we enter the North Gallery the deep red of the walls sets off the white of the sculptures. It is a remarkable space. The blinds are opened and the light floods in. It reminds me of a watercolour of the North Gallery by the artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). The watercolour depicts the gallery luminous and white. John Flaxman’s (1755-1826) famous sculpture ‘St Michael subduing Satan’ is to the fore. The sketch is one of a number produced by Turner which he painted for his own pleasure, they illustrate life behind the scenes at Petworth House. Andrew Loukes explains “At the time of the 3rd Earl these galleries were painted white.” I remark that this must have been the first white cube gallery. Andrew agrees and adds “This is arguably the first purpose built art gallery in Britain.” He reminds me that the Carved Room at Petworth House, sometimes called the Long Dining Room, was created by the 3rd Earl from two rooms. It houses the remarkable Grinling Gibbons carvings. The room would have appeared very much as it does today although the panelling was papered and painted white. Andrew says “The effects of this white colour scheme can be seen in the palette of Turner’s paintings produced specifically for that room.” Some rooms were also painted a bright red.

The North Gallery was altered and expanded by both the 2nd and 3rd Earl’s of Egremont. The influence of George Wyndham O’Brien (1751-1837), 3rd Earl of Egremont, and his forebears is immediately apparent. The best contemporary art of the early 19th century sits alongside sculptures from classical antiquity. Andrew Loukes explains that this is no accident “This is a very personal collection reflecting father and son. The classical sculpture was predominately collected by the 2nd Earl. Under the 3rd Earl the modern was brought alongside the ancient. The house and collection influenced many of the artists of the time. It is not possible to overemphasize how important this place was, in the early 19th century, to British art –it was an unofficial academy.” The 3rd Earl was very discerning so there are no examples of work by artists like John Constable or Edwin Landseer in the collection, even though they stayed at Petworth.

John Flaxman’s famous sculpture, ‘St Michael subduing Satan’
John Flaxman’s famous sculpture, ‘St Michael subduing Satan’

John Flaxman’s ‘St Michael subduing Satan’ is still displayed in the North Gallery. Flaxman based the composition of this piece on Raphael’s painting of St Michael which now hangs in the Louvre. The sculpture tells the story of the eventual triumph of good over evil from the book of Revelations in the Bible. A youthful St Michael prepares to smite Satan as he raises his spear. It is a heroic and patriotic piece produced by Flaxman at the height of his powers.

It was John Ruskin who commented that the white walls made the sculptures look dirty and by the 1850s the North Gallery’s walls had been painted red. Petworth House is one of the nation’s great treasure houses. The house reopens on Saturday 19th March 2016. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning to an old friend you cannot fail to be inspired by the art and history of the place. For more information go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Returning to Petworth with Mr Turner

Petworth House and Park © National Trust Images, Chris Lacey
Petworth House and Park © National Trust Images, Chris Lacey

This week I am returning to Petworth House to revisit Mr. Turner – an exhibition, which explores some of the central themes of director Mike Leigh’s remarkable film Mr. Turner. The exhibition adds depth and context to Turner’s relationships, his restless travelling, his interest in natural philosophy and his many visits to Petworth House.

It has often been said that the character of Turner’s enigmatic and enlightened host, George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), informed the artist’s time at Petworth. Certainly, his relationship with Egremont is recorded as being particularly warm, especially in the decade before the Earl’s death.

The 3rd Earl’s independent thought and patronage gave opportunity for artists to develop their talent, qualities described by the Royal Academician George Jones as being profoundly important to the development of English art.

This independent, enlightened and philanthropic landowner was an expert agriculturalist and horticulturalist, an amateur scientist and a breeder of livestock and racehorses. The Agricultural Depression began with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and lasted until 1836. Crushing taxation connected with the post-war national debt, a glut of workers returning from military service and the subsequent collapse in prices came with heavy social and economic costs. The depression’s severity brought financial ruin upon landlords and tenant farmers alike. During this period the 3rd Earl planted different crops, fed and clothed the destitute and provided employment on a mass scale.

A scene from Mr. Turner in the Carved Room at Petworth House, with Timothy Spall, Karina Fernandez and Patrick Godfrey playing J.M.W. Turner, Mrs Coggins and the 3rd Earl of Egremont © Thin Man Films
A scene from Mr. Turner in the Carved Room at Petworth House, with Timothy Spall, Karina Fernandez and Patrick Godfrey playing J.M.W. Turner, Mrs Coggins and the 3rd Earl of Egremont © Thin Man Films

The Carved Room at Petworth House, sometimes called the Long Dining Room, was created by the 3rd Earl from two rooms. It housed the remarkable Grinling Gibbons carvings and work by the famous carver’s Sussex contemporary, John Selden. The room would have appeared very much as it does today, although the panelling was papered and painted white. Lord Egremont held his dogs in great affection and it was in this room that he would feed them at breakfast before setting out each day to hunt and shoot, even in his seventies.

In the 1820s Turner painted four landscapes for this splendidly ornamented dining room. They are quite extraordinary, combining Turner’s strength and energy with the culmination of over thirty years of experience. They capture more than just the Earl’s possessions. The patron’s philanthropic investment in agriculture, industry and the Sussex economy are brought to the fore, diverting our attention as viewers from status alone. One of them, for example, is a pastoral scene with local people playing cricket in Petworth Park amongst an unusual, diverse array of breeds, illustrating the Earl’s generosity and his innovative approach to farming.

J.M.W. Turner – Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs, oil on canvas © Tate, London, 2014
J.M.W. Turner – Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs, oil on canvas © Tate, London, 2014

However, it is a preliminary sketch of the same landscape, titled Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs, which captures my eye. Here we watch Lord Egremont as though from the Long Dining Room. He strikes out walking confidently across the sunlit sward with his dogs, bathed in luminous light, as a herd of deer grazes and looks on. The horizon is marked by the Sussex Downs and a copse broken by the distinctive spire of Tillington Church. Painted in 1828, this intimate picture provides a particular insight into the personal passions and delights of this enlightened patron. There is a spontaneity reflective of these two remarkable men’s good-humoured bonhomie. Turner’s friendship with the 3rd Earl of Egremont was such that he described his patron’s death as his “loss at Petworth”.

Mr. Turner – an exhibition illuminates the life and work of this great artist with many rarely seen works and personal objects on display. Demand for tickets has been high, so I recommend you book yours as soon as possible. The exhibition runs at Petworth House until 11th March 2015. For more information and to book tickets go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house or telephone 0844 249 1895.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th February 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Mr Turner at Petworth

Mr. Turner – Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, paints in the Old Library © Simon Mein, Thin Man Films.
Mr. Turner – Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, paints in the Old Library © Simon Mein, Thin Man Films.

Mike Leigh’s textural depiction of the life and work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in his award-winning film Mr. Turner has been brought to life in an exhibition at Petworth House. This fascinating show runs until 11th March 2015. It brings together rarely seen works by J.M.W. Turner with props, costumes and paintings from the film by the actor Timothy Spall.

Andrew Loukes, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Petworth House, is clearly excited by Mr. Turner – an exhibition, which he has co-curated with Dr Jacqueline Riding. Andrew enthuses: “Mike Leigh’s work on Mr. Turner at Petworth is arguably the most significant cultural moment at the ‘house of art’ since Turner himself was a frequent guest here in the 1820s and 30s.” The third Earl of Egremont was amongst the most important English patrons of art in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The film Mr. Turner has provided the opportunity to re-examine the important role that Petworth and the third Earl played in Turner’s later work.

As we walk up the Old Library staircase in conversation, I remark on one of my favourite scenes in the film, in which Turner stands painting at his easel in this library with three ladies, bathed in light from the arched window. As we reach the landing, we are greeted by the very same scene and light. Andrew smiles and explains, “Mike Leigh wanted to recreate some of Turner’s iconic pictures. Turner painted several sketches of this room.”

J.M.W. Turner – The Old Library © Tate, London, 2014
J.M.W. Turner – The Old Library © Tate, London, 2014

The Old Library is often called ‘Turner’s Studio’. This particular scene is taken from Turner’s luminous gouache of 1827, titled The Old Library: The Artist and his Admirers. Here three ladies watch as the artist paints. Turner’s delight is obvious in his depiction of light, colour and movement. It provides the viewer with a remarkable impression of a particular moment in time. The sketch is one of a number produced by Turner in the autumn of 1827. Painted for his own pleasure, they illustrate life behind the scenes at Petworth House.

Timothy Spall studied under London artist Tim Wright for two years as part of his preparation for the role of Turner. His vigorous performance in the film convincingly reflects something of the practical physicality of creating art and it is surprising to see the level of accomplishment in his paintings and drawings first hand. Spall depicts J.M.W. Turner as an artist consumed by his art, confident, eccentric, prosperous, forthright, both detached and tender in his personal relationships.

Like the film, the exhibition offers a revealing and very personal insight into the character of this great artist. Andrew reverentially shows me Turner’s leather watercolour pouch, which is one of the objects on display. Although worn, it shines, displaying the patina of years of use and handling by the artist himself.

As Andrew and I continue around the exhibition into the Carved Room with its Turners, Grinling Gibbons carvings and costumes from the film, it becomes apparent that I am in the company of a man whose depth of understanding and love of the collections he curates at Petworth House have rooted him in this place in a very particular way. He remarks, “I am excited to be able to expand the exhibition offer at Petworth, based around the remarkable collections here.” Andrew Loukes’ quiet passion, vision and dedication are bringing life to this important house and its collections and he deserves our thanks.

Demand for tickets for Mr. Turner – an exhibition at Petworth House is expected to be high, so book your tickets early! For more information go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house and to book tickets telephone 0844 249 1895.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 14th January 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.