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.