Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the first instalment of a new series of articles in which I will revisit each of the 96 sites depicted by J.M.W.Turner in his series of engravings ‘Picturesque View in England and Wales’. These were published over a period of ten years between 1827 and 1837 but represent subjects drawn from his entire career. Overall, the series is epic in scale and scope. It teems with imagery and detail, human comedy and drama, history, and the accumulated knowledge of every effect and experience that a lifetime of being in the world might witness. It is positively Miltonic in scope, breadth and power, and luminous in its sympathy for the human condition. It is also represents the very summit of the art of engraving and printing by hand, just at the point where the production of images was about to be overtaken by photography and industrial publication. The order in which I tackle the subjects will be directed by opportunity and circumstance. I begin at one of the most northerly subjects, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.
The subject is one of those included in the exhibition Turner: Northern Exposure currently showing at the Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed until Sunday 13 October [see https://www.turnernorthernexposure.co.uk/%5D. This is a small, but exquisite display of subjects related to Turner’s first tour to the north of England in 1797. Its argument is that this tour was the key formative event of his early career: His exposure to the scenery and weather of the north opened up to him the poetic power of the landscape sublime. He returned to subjects sketched then at regular intervals throughout his career. The exhibition moves on to Carlisle in the autumn, and then to Harrogate in the spring of 2020, each venue offering a fresh focus on its immediate area. I hope to feature a few more subjects relating to each area as the exhibition develops.
[click on image to enlarge]
Tuner’s subject at Alnwick is the castle seen over the Lion Bridge from the NNW. Alnwick is one of the finest palace castles in the north, the seat of the Percy family, Dukes of Northumberland. It was started not long after the Norman conquests, and has been remodelled by successive generations to the present day. The bridge was built in 1775 by John Adam as part of extensive work on the castle and estate. It is famous for the stone lion on its parapet, emblem of the Percy family.
Turner’s only sketches at Alnwick date from his visit in 1797. On that occasion he sketched three subjects, the gateway to Alnwick Abbey, the tower of St Michael’s Church, and the view of the castle across the bridge.
The viewpoint of the exhibited work is perfectly preserved today, in a field just to the west of the bridge. There is no public right of way, but in any case I can say that the view today is rather occluded by the growth of trees. Turner’s original sketch was made from a position just below the level of the parapet. We can just see the cast lead lion on the far side with its distinctive horizontal tail.
Comparison quickly reveals that the castle differs considerably in its details today, particularly in respect of the main block of the keep called the Prudhoe Tower towards the right. Although this appears to be medieval, it was built between 1854 and 1857, and Turner’s sketch accurately records the appearance of the castle before its mid nineteenth century remodelling. My photograph was taken in the mid-1990s when there were fewer trees, or at least they were very much smaller than they are today. Even so. I had to retreat further from the bridge than Turner in order to bring the castle into clear view. Today that is still more necessary, but it is entertaining to be able to judge from the old photograph exactly how much individual specimens have flourished in the interval.
Following the sketch of 1797, it was more than thirty years before Turner returned to the subject to develop a watercolour [Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide] engraved in 1829 and published in 1830 for his series of ‘Picturesque Views of England and Wales’. It is perhaps one of the most extraordinary conceptions of the whole series, for Turner imagined the scene by night, with the full moon rising over the castle.
Call me slow on the uptake if you like, but it was only this Spring when writing the captions for the Berwick exhibits that it occurred to me to wonder about the accuracy of the effect. The moon is shown low in the south-south-east, which is only possible in midsummer. In 2018, the furthest south it rose was on 28 June when at 129 degrees. Here it is seen at 157 degrees, and at an elevation of little more than twenty degrees, which would be about right for midsummer. It’s more than a little surprising that no-one else seems ever to have enquired about how true Turner’s effect might be.
Never one to resist a potential wild goose chase, I found myself driving northward on Monday 17 June, when the nearest full moon this year to the summer solstice was scheduled. After two of the wettest June weeks on record this seemed an enterprise fraught with improbability. Despite the fact that it was a pleasant evening with a clearing forecast, I could not quite dispel the doubts seeded by my son who observed that there is no hint of the moon in the sketch and that as an artist Turner could put his moon in his picture wherever he liked and putting it where he did look more than a little artful.
I took up position just before ten o’clock with the sun setting behind me and the whole scene brightly lit, except for what appeared ominously like a veil of cloud across the southern sky. No sign whatsoever of the forecast moonrise at 21.59. Half an hour later; still no sign, but a solitary bright star [actually, as I subsequently discover, the planet Jupiter] hanging encouragingly where I would like to see the moon.
With dusk thickening rapidly a large white owl appeared over the meadow by the river. Shifting position a little to see whether the moon might spotted, suddenly a deer darted up out of the long grass and bounded up the hill into the trees.
And then, suddenly there it was, five to eleven and the moon just lifting into view from behind a distant bank of cloud.
Another three-quarters of an hour, 23.36, it was in the perfect position; exactly where Turner put it in the picture.
The only problem now was that it was pitch black on the ground. There are cattle in the field below the bridge; their pats so easy to avoid in daylight that I had completely failed to register that there were so many. In so short a distance. So fresh.
So, what might this mean, if anything? After all, the reason no-one has ever enquired into the truth of the effect is most likely to stem from the fact that no-one ever thought it mattered. But standing there in the middle of the night, watching the moon move into perfect enactment of Turner’s representation felt very much like a demonstration that he hadn’t just made it up. One conclusion that could be immediately drawn is that Turner didn’t make his sketch by moonlight. Even by the light of a full moon, it is just too dark. So the sketch, as one always imagined, was made during the day.
So how did he know about the moon? Well, presumably he saw it. It’s not at all difficult to imagine him looking out from his inn, seeing a full moon in the offing and wandering down to the bridge to look at the castle under those conditions. And from the bridge the moon sits EXACTLY where Turner puts it.
And there are reflections in the water.
And this is exactly what Turner devoted his whole existence to. He must have watched the moon climb into the sky on countless occasions, glint upon rivers, creeks and the sea, silver meadows, buildings and trees. No-one can ever have stored up more knowledge of such things. And that is exactly what this picture does. After an interval of thirty years it takes a memory and clarifies it with his entire stock of experience accumulated during that time.
But it matters still more that he didn’t just make this up, even from his vast experience. It matters very greatly that the image has an indexical relationship to a real phenomenon. It might index to any number of conceptions and imaginings great and even profound. But for it to index to the real is to establish a connection to something beyond conception, to the sublime, to the other, to the not imagined. What I admire in Turner most is the sense that he continually gives that he is reporting on something discovered. That there is something altogether else that what we might imagine, and that we might get some inkling of it if we listen or look attentively enough.