Review of Eric Shanes' The Young Mr Turner: The First Forty Years - 1775-1815
Published by Yale University Press, 2016
This is another large-format book from Yale, the first volume of (presumably) two which will span the whole of Turner's career. This book covers the first forty years, and is beautifully illustrated throughout. However, from the outset it is apparent that little can be done to ultimately resolve the several contradictions that loom large whenever a serious study of this artist is attempted.
Turner presented a problem to his contemporaries, and he challenges us in a number of ways today. He was a precocious child artist, accepted into the Royal Academy school at the incredibly young age of fourteen, but he revelled in his poor background and his broad Cockney accent, and refused to act the part of the gentleman artist. He was a genuine innovator throughout his life, yet was particularly sensitive to criticism and often actively sought public approval. Notoriously parsimonious in his dealings with patrons, he was generous in support of his favoured charities —a fact which was rarely made public. This respected Royal Academician lived secretly with his mistress in a Chelsea back street, where he went by the name of ‘Admiral Booth.’ He exhibited his work regularly at the annual Academy shows and always eagerly supported the organisation, but when the similar British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom was set up in 1805 he treated it with suspicion and even went so far as to attempt to subvert it, as we shall discover later. Finally, despite his originality as a painter, he would happily borrow motifs and even whole scenes from others’ works, if he so wished.
These are just some of the many contradictions and dilemmas that need to be faced in any new in-depth study of Turner. The author describes and explains the significant events and artworks which propelled the artist forwards, and thereby takes us on a fascinating journey: this chronological account attempts to link the works to the aspects of the contemporary world that influenced their production.
Turner's early years are comprehensively described, and the text and accompanying illustrations more than adequately demonstrate just what a prodigy he was. His early difficulties with perspective are described in detail, allowing us to appreciate the young artist’s progress in overcoming such problems. A watercolour from 1791 is a good example in this context. In September of that year Turner travelled to Bristol to stay with John Narraway, an old friend of his father’s. On a visit to Bath, he produced this watercolour. It shows the abbey from the north-east, and the elevated perspective gives the building an imposing sense of grandeur. Turner has placed figures in front of the building, probably to create a sense of verisimilitude. However, they are much too large: the sedan chair, for example, is the same size as the ground floor of the building, and this mistake renders the work something of a failure, despite the accurate depiction of the buildings.
Turner exhibited work in almost every Royal Academy summer show from the age of fourteen until the year of his death. His relationship with the Academy was sometimes difficult, but in 1807 —somewhat ironically, given his earlier struggles—he was appointed Professor of Perspective, a post which he held for thirty years and took very seriously. In 1796 his first oil painting to go on public display, Fishermen At Sea, was hung at the RA summer exhibition. Bearing in mind that Turner had just turned twenty-one, the painting is an early foretaste of what was to come. Although deeply influenced by the styles of both de Loutherbourg and Rembrandt, the work displays a confident handling of light and shade, a characteristic for which Turner later became known.
Turner became a full Academician in 1802, and Shanes describes in some detail his early issues with his fellow artists. At the time there were serious political differences within the Academy, exacerbated by the King’s direct involvement. The Academy was divided into two warring factions which at one point seemed to be tearing the organisation apart. Turner's attitude was summed up by his behaviour immediately after his election. It was usual for newly elected Academicians to contact those who had voted for them in order to thank them. The newly abrasive Turner refused, stating, “If they had not been satisfied with my pictures, they would not have elected me. Why then should I thank them? Why thank a man for doing a simple duty?”
The following year, 1803, there was more conflict within the Academy and, in the wider world, between France and England, once again on the brink of war. The works that Turner exhibited that year included two which, in their different ways, demonstrate how he was able not only to master technical problems, but also to construct pictures which convey subtle meaning. The first, The Festival Upon the Opening of the Vintage of Mâcon, was the overture of what was to be a continuing homage to the great landscape artist Claude Lorrain. Shanes reveals fascinating details about how this work was produced. Turner used water-based glue-size solutions with black, brown and white pigments to prime the surface. The canvas was large, 5’ x 8’, and would have needed at least two litres of the water-based liquid. Such quantities would necessarily mean that the canvas had to be placed on the floor to avoid the risk of the colours running. Shanes' final comment on this is worth noting— “Long before Jackson Pollock opened up the floor as an arena for painting, Turner was there first.”
The other oil painting exhibited that year was Calais Pier, with French Poissards Preparing for Sea; An English Packet Arriving. Turner shows us a raging sea and darkening sky, with the only significant patch of blue directly above the English ship. While at first sight this might seem to be an action-filled seascape, there are plenty of clues that the work is, in fact, an ominous and prescient warning of conflict between the two countries. The ships are clearly on a collision course. Since the English ship is trying to dock, the French vessel should be giving way, but it does not seem to be complying with naval conventions. The allegory of Napoleonic expansionism and the warning symbolised by the gathering storm clouds are clear and, as Shanes correctly states, hostilities between the two countries resumed just sixteen days after this painting first went on public display.
Shanes charts Turner’s progress through these highly productive years with ease and precision. However, he is more than capable of presenting us with some fascinating and unusual stories, none more so than the strange tale behind Turner's 1814 work Apullia in Search of Appullus vide Ovid. For many years it was believed that Turner painted this in the style of Claude Lorrain for a British Institution Premiums competition, the rules of which apparently insisted that entries should be “a companion preferably to Claude or Poussin.” Shanes dismisses this claim, and instead compares the Turner work to a 1654 Lorrain painting which Turner would have seen at Petworth House--Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters.
The story contained within the Turner work is Ovid's tale of a rustic shepherd who sees a group of dancing nymphs and mocks their movements, for which the gods punish him by turning him into an olive tree. Shanes places this work next to the Lorrain painting which inspired it, and one can see immediately that Turner has virtually copied the entire scene, rather than producing a ‘companion’ to it. The subject of the Lorrain work, however, was taken from the Bible, and concerns a marriage deception which involved veiled figures. In his letter of submission Turner claimed that his painting was for sale at the enormous sum of £850, the most that he had ever asked for a picture. So what purpose lay behind this expert copy?
Shanes relates the story with great expertise. The newly formed British Institution was a rival body to the Royal Academy, and actively sought to encourage painters to draw inspiration from specific Old Masters. As Turner has accurately and skilfully done this, should he then expect to win the first prize of £200? Perhaps, but Shanes points out that Turner deliberately missed the deadline for submissions by one day, so that the judging committee decided to disqualify him. The background to this intrigue seems to be the British Institution's attitude towards what Turner saw as artistic quality. The Institution encouraged mindless copying with little or no regard to artistic merit. Thus Turner presented them with an imitation Lorrain, but one which demonstrates very clearly that he not only understood the technical and painterly issues, but also the significance of the subject matter. By missing the competition date he was taunting the directors, almost daring them to crown him the winner, and thus causing them more embarrassment when they gave the prizes to works significantly poorer in skill and execution. Sadly, although Turner had made his point about the Institution, he paid for it with the loss of his friendship with Lord Egremont, the owner of Petworth — it was assumed that Turner had copied his painting with his agreement, which was not the case.
Turner continued to push the boundaries of his art. The following year he turned again to Lorrain for inspiration, but this time the subject and the stylistic handling were all his own. In Dido Building Carthage; Or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, Turner seems to encapsulate all of his art’s facets at the time. As Shanes diligently explains, the work is full of those contradictions which typify Turner.
By 1815 Turner was an independent, wealthy member of the art establishment. He held more than £10,000 in government bonds, a huge sum which ensured that he could live comfortably for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, this painting carried the enormous price tag of £850, which was never offered by any of his usual patrons. Turner later bequeathed it to the National Gallery on condition that they hang it next to a Lorrain painting that they owned. By coincidence, in June 1815, as people were looking at this representation of empire building and destruction, Wellington was defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, an event which in no small part laid the foundations for the creation of the largest empire that the world had seen since Roman times.
On the right-hand side of the painting Turner places the tomb of Dido's murdered husband, Sychaeus. His death prompted Dido to leave Tyre and found a new city, Carthage, which was destined to become the centre of a great empire. On the left-hand side we see Dido actively engaged in the construction of the new city, with great architectural columns and arches rising up, while in the centre ships can be seen bringing in goods and people to generate development and wealth. Turner has harnessed Lorrain’s technique and woven it into a narrative completely contemporary with his world. He clearly sees the construction and destruction of empire as two sides of the same coin, while warning that disintegration is inevitable if the moral certainties present at inception are lost or forgotten. Finally —dominating the work and occupying almost a quarter of the canvas— is a glorious sunrise representing the rising empire of Carthage, showing us once more that even when engaged in a work with classical themes, Turner could show us the real world of nature as few artists have managed either before or since.
Here the book ends, a forty-year artistic journey which excellently tracks and records the many small steps along the way. As already stated, successful resolution of the several contradictions which become apparent in any examination of this artist can never be achieved, but this is an affectionate, clear and well-written account of the first half of Turner's career, beautifully illustrated. If the second volume is as good as this one, these two books will be the benchmark for Turner studies for many years to come.--Paul Flux
Review of Aubrey Beardsley: Catalogue Raisonné, edited by Linda Gertner Zatlin
Yale University Press, 2016
Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, this beautiful two-volume set comprises everything that Beardsley produced in his short lifetime. Of course, this is what should be expected of a catalogue raisonné, but it is worth underlining the point in order to appreciate the immense amount of work involved. The research necessary for such an undertaking is frighteningly complex. It requires following up every known or suspected work of art, its location and provenance, establishing and verifying its date, and —a real challenge in the case of Beardsley, whose work was so often counterfeited—finally deciding whether it is genuine or not. These two volumes have taken sixteen years to complete, so it is important to emphasise the dedication of those involved.
Beardsley’s output is instantly recognisable. His graphic work has been hugely popular, both during his own lifetime and after, and as the Art Nouveau movement progressed, he was acknowledged as a major source of influence. Beardsley was born in Brighton in 1882, and as the juvenilia in Volume I amply demonstrate, from a very early age he showed considerable talent. There are, for example, a group of sixteen drawings that he made for Lady Henrietta Pelham around 1883, which would mean that they were completed before his twelfth birthday. Although obviously childlike, they show that at even this early age Beardsley had a remarkable mastery of line. The influence of Kate Greenaway is immediate – Lady Pelham had given him a book of her pictures to copy – but the confident handling of line is very striking.
After leaving school he became an office clerk in July 1889, working for the Guardian Fire and Life Assurance Company in Lombard Street, Holborn. He remained there until the autumn of 1892, when J. M. Dent asked him to illustrate a new edition of Le Morte d’Arthur. In 1891 Beardsley had been introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and for some months the two men were very close. The influence of the older man became noticeable in the work with which Beardsley was now engaged. In August 1891 Beardsley was commissioned by A.W. King at the Blackburn Technical School to provide the frontispiece for the school journal, entitled The Bee.
The resulting drawing, Hamlet Patris Maem Sequiiur, is significant for several reasons, which Zatlin graphically explains. The drawing shows an anxious Hamlet entrapped within a tangle of briar. Helpfully, within the body of text which describes and explains each artwork, besides the provenance and history of the work is, unusually, a line entitled Flowers. This is incredibly helpful, for within the context of the nineteenth century art world of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites flowers were not simply decorative motifs, they carried symbolic meanings which are lost to most observers now. In Beardsley’s later works flowers and plants of all kinds became immensely important, allowing him to infuse his pictures with allegory.
We are informed that briar has a symbolic meaning of severity or envy. Here, the briar envelops Hamlet as he searches for his dead father. The wood is so dense that there seems to be no way to push through, and, as the figure has been identified as Hamlet, this carries with it the possibility of more interpretations than the obvious, literal one. Zatlin draws attention to the possibility that within this image are references to Beardsley's ill-health and fear of dying. Hamlet was doomed to avenge his father's death, an action which would only bring more tragedy to him and his family. Beardsley's own father had suffered with tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs which his son inherited and which would ultimately claim his life at the young age of twenty-five. In this picture, Hamlet is faced with a hopeless task. This could be interpreted as a visual representation of Beardsley's own predicament, having contracted a severe illness from his father which he had no hope of surviving. However, this drawing is significant for yet another reason, and that is the literary subject that it illustrates.
Throughout the nineteenth century printed images had been regarded as one of the lowest forms of art, especially when accompanied by text. Ruskin, amongst others, had denigrated the form, and even Morris, who had raised the standard with his beautiful books, recognised that the function of book illustration was to enhance the text itself. With this image, Beardsley makes a radical statement. Nowhere in Shakespeare's text does Hamlet go searching for his father in a wood, and there is no obvious reference point within the play to which this image could be linked. What Beardsley has done is to portray a psychological response to Hamlet's predicament, a response which is in sympathy with the original text, but which does not attempt to illustrate any of the play’s content as such. This would become a significant feature of Beardsley's later work, when he produced wonderful illustrations for written texts, yet did not attempt to place these illustrations next to specific lines or events — instead, he chose aspects of the narrative which were psychologically or emotionally charged.
The following year, as already noted, Beardsley received his first major commission, illustrating Le Morte d’Arthur for J. M. Dent. The publisher saw this endeavour as rivalling the work of William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, who had been producing beautifully illustrated books with medieval themes which were, however, extremely costly. Using the new technique of line-block, a method of mechanical reproduction much less expensive than woodcut, Beardsley took to the new form quickly and for the next eighteen months was engaged with this enterprise. Ultimately Beardsley provided 353 drawings for the final edition, many of which appeared more than once. The artist was required to provide chapter headings, initial letter spaces, and full page illustrations linked to the text. Such a massive undertaking stretched Beardsley to the extreme. At one point he came close to being overwhelmed by the sheer number of drawings that he was being required to make, but ultimately the book was published and the young artist received universal praise. His career was settled.
Perhaps the most significant revelation vouchsafed by this large group of drawings is simply the range of work that Beardsley achieved. The artist was barely out of his teens, and yet he delivered an extraordinary opus. In the early drawings the influence of William Morris and Burne-Jones is quite clear, but as the work progresses and Beardsley becomes more confident with the new techniques, his individuality comes to the fore. Towards the end he grew bored and somewhat repetitive, but the completed book contains several masterpieces.
One such is the full-page illustration How La Beale Isoud Nursed Sir Tristram. Beardsley provided twelve large drawings for the first volume of Le Morte d’Arthur, of which six single page and one double page illustrated the legend of Sir Tristram and La Beale Isoud despite the fact that the story occupies less than a third of the text. Beardsley had enthusiastically watched Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde and it is clear that the story, involving love, death and magic, attracted him.
This picture is the first in the series, in which Isolde nurses Tristram after he has been wounded in a fight with Morold, the man to whom Isolde was betrothed and whom Tristam has killed. Beardsley catches the moment when they perhaps look at each other for the first time. The border is decorated with bay and apple trees, the bay representing glory for the victorious knight, while the apple is the traditional symbol of temptation.
The sexual tension is clear. While neither figure is particularly active, beneath the surface powerful emotions are at work. Isolde kneels beside Tristram with her hand on his thigh, to her left a tall candlestick topped with molten wax. Beardsley's debt to Japanese shunga woodcuts is explicit. The solid black of Isolde's cape contrasts with the surrounding white space, which is empty except for the candlestick and the prone figure of Tristram, and the whole image has an economy of line which became a hallmark of Beardsley's later work.
In 1893, as he was finishing his work on Le Morte d’Arthur, Beardsley was chosen by John Lane at the Bodley Head to illustrate the English version of Oscar Wilde's play Salome. The completed 1894 edition contains thirteen full-page illustrations, which are amongst Beardsley’s best-known works and still have the power to shock and surprise today. The influence, again, of shunga woodcuts, the complete mastery of line and tone, and the sexual nature of Wilde's narrative seem to combine here in perfect harmony. Each drawing is a balanced design in black and white which illustrates aspects of the text that appealed directly to the artist. There is some evidence to suggest that Wilde was less than enthusiastic about Beardsley's interpretation, but the resulting works have provided scholars with plenty to occupy them regarding the sexualities of Wilde and Beardsley, and the pictures’ portrayal of the lust and violence inherent in the story.
Any one of the plates is worthy of close scrutiny, but Enter Herodias is fascinating for so many reasons that it virtually selects itself. There are four figures. In the centre stands Herodias, the personification of the evil matriarch, with bare breasts. On either side of her are attendants, the one on the left an old dwarf-like figure who raises her cloak with a wizened finger, while on the right is a naked male whose modesty is preserved by a flippant fig-leaf held in place with an exaggerated bow, added after John Lane had objected to the uncensored version. At the bottom right we see a theatrical master of ceremonies extending his arm, as if introducing the scene in a theatre. This figure is a caricature of Wilde himself, wearing a hood adorned with an owl’s head and holding a copy of Salome under his arm. Finally, underneath Wilde's extended hand are three molten candles housed on glaringly obvious phallic candle-holders.
Zatlin quite rightly draws attention to the mass of interpretations to which this image has been subjected over the years. From possible references to Wilde's and (perhaps) Beardsley’s own homosexuality to the portrayal of the author as an extravagant showman, Beardsley has suffused the image with ambiguities which will probably never be completely unravelled. It is clear, however, that at this point in his career he had found a near perfect combination of subject and technical expertise which provided him with a golden opportunity to display his ability to the full. Wilde's play, which contained hetero- and homosexual erotic themes cloaked in a Biblical narrative, was an ideal vehicle for Beardsley to explore the boundaries of his art, and he exploited it to the full. This group of illustrations, although familiar, are not often seen together —books on Beardsley often have only a few examples— but taken as a whole they are breathtaking beautiful. It is little wonder that Wilde, on seeing them for the first time, is purported to have been worried that they would draw attention away from his text.
As if these last two commissions were not enough for a young man barely out of his teens, early in 1894 a meeting between Henry Harland, an American writer who had first arrived in London in 1889, and Beardsley resulted in them making a proposal to John Lane. In Beardsley's own words, “Our idea is that many brilliant story painters and picture writers (sic) cannot get their best stuff accepted in the conventional magazines because they are not topical or perhaps too risqué.´” Lane agreed to be the publisher, and the first issue of The Yellow Book was planned for April 1894. It was to establish Beardsley as the definitive fin-de-siècle artist and bring him public recognition and notoriety in equal measure.
The history of The Yellow Book is well documented and need not be repeated here. However, it is worth mentioning that Beardsley's work is only present in the first four editions, for he was summarily dismissed in the aftermath of Wilde's conviction and the vicious backlash which ensued. In the public mind Beardsley was associated with Wilde as a result of their collaboration on Salome. Zatlin correctly states that when Wilde was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel he was seen carrying a yellow-bound book under his arm. Furious members of the public assumed that it was a copy of The Yellow Book and immediately betook themselves to the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, where they smashed in the publisher’s windows.
The first cover was typically provocative. A masked couple stares out at us laughing and smiling, the now-familiar candle positioned to the left emphasising the dark sexual suggestion of the image. The cover was printed in black on a yellow surface, mimicking the well-known design of risqué French novel covers. As might be expected, the reaction of the critics was generally scathing, but to the great delight of artist and publisher the book sold well. In a letter of May 12th 1894, Beardsley proudly wrote that six thousand had been sold, and that a third edition was in preparation.
One of the last drawings that Beardsley provided for The Yellow Book was The Mysterious Rose Garden, which appeared in Volume IV. It is yet another mysterious creation, one which combines traditional motifs with modern handling, resulting in an image which may be read in several ways. Beardsley told the Sketch in 1895 that this drawing was quite simply “nothing more or less than the Annunciation,” a statement which is certainly open to question. A naked young woman is positioned in front of a trellis loaded with rose blossoms. Next to her, and occupying most of the available space, is a heavily cloaked male who leans towards her ear, the traditional route of the Incarnation. Even at this point Beardsley confuses, for the messenger is far from her and seems to be whispering, signifying perhaps that the event has already happened. There are fallen rose petals around her feet, symbols of passion.
The Annunciation is a highly traditional Christian image. It represents one of the most sacred moments of theology, when the Virgin Mary is given the gift of bearing the holy child. On one level this image can be accepted just as Beardsley stated, as a representation of the Annunciation. However, pictorial details reveal contradictions which suggest that the artist was turning the story on its head. The feet of the male figure are winged in the manner of Hermes, the Greek messenger god who was also the protector of thieves and liars, but he carries with him an ornate lamp similar to that held by Christ in Holman Hunt's The Light of the World. Another reading may be that this image echoes the temptation of Adam by Eve, but with the gender roles reversed.
Towards the end of 1895 Beardsley agreed to provide illustrations for a new edition of The Rape of the Lock, the 1712 mock epic poem by Pope. Always interested in eighteenth century design, and familiar from childhood with the extravagance of Brighton Pavilion’s interior, Beardsley seized on the chance and provided nine full-page illustrations as well as the title page. Unlike his previous book illustrations, however, the overall result is somewhat muted, although he has completely mastered the technical demands, even developing a pointillist effect to decorate each scene. Zatlin acknowledges that critics have seen these as amongst his least successful works.
They represent something of a puzzle, for although the technical virtuosity is dazzling, the emotional impact is weak. Spaces are filled with swirling lines of dots which draw the gaze around the pictures, and the main figures are surrounded with a mass of decoration which, in some cases, overwhelms the entire scene. The final drawing, The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles, is just such an example. Belinda and the Baron confront one another at the moment when, in her anger, she defeats him with a pinch of snuff. Surrounding them are their attendants— two female, one male, and a smiling dwarf in the centre who may even represent Pope himself. The placing of the figures is well-balanced and the action is held in place by the overturned chair at the front, alongside a fallen cane. Yet the scene is dominated by the elaborate decoration. While Beardsley is clearly referencing eighteenth century design and style, he places artifice over substance. The mock-heroic content of the poem is deliberately satiric, but the satire here has been overwhelmed by the intricate patterns which distract the eye. We can marvel at the superb draughtsmanship on display, but regret that emotional engagement has been lost.
The last series that Beardsley completed is, arguably, amongst his finest works, and his most notorious. In December 1895 he was asked by Leonard Smithers to provide eight full-page drawings for a new translation of the Aristophanes comedy Lysistrata. First performed in 411 BC, it is the story of the Athenian and Spartan women, led by Lysistrata, who agree to withhold their favours from husbands and lovers until the men agree to end their seemingly endless war. The story provided Beardsley with a subject which enabled him to explore sexuality within the humorous context of an ancient text, and the result represents the summation and zenith of Beardsley's skills. From the designs for Salome with their exploitation of blank areas to the overly-fussy scenes for The Rape of the Lock, Beardsley had been exploring the balance that he could achieve within the picture frame between line and space. With these eight pictures he achieved that magical balance, which gives the works their beauty but also their satirical edge. These two factors seem to combine so as to complement one another and prevent the scenes from becoming either too formally decorative or too blatantly obscene.
In July 1896, after he had finished Lysistrata, Beardsley's health began to seriously deteriorate. He was haemorrhaging blood from his infected lungs and was moving from place to place in an attempt to improve his health. He stayed in Bournemouth for some time, before finally leaving for Paris in early 1897. The final year of his life saw him move between Dieppe and Paris and ultimately settle in Menton, where he died in March 1898.
Beardsley's legacy is quite difficult to define. The Art Nouveau movement was heavily indebted to his designs and many early twentieth century artists acknowledged his influence. He was provocative and pushed boundaries, but remains something of an enigma as a person. He left little of himself behind other than his art. Unusually, we know next to nothing about his private life—he seems to have had no close relationships with anyone other than his mother and sister—and yet his art is instantly recognisable and his name familiar. These two volumes are a revelation, and an appropriate tribute to a truly ground-breaking artist, for they enable the reader to fully appreciate both the scale and the quality of Beardsley's art. They may have been sixteen years in preparation, but they have certainly set the highest standard for serious study of this exceptional artist.--Paul Flux