Lights will guide you home: Turner at Calais #4

This article continues the consideration of Turner’s watercolour of the harbour at Calais and its 1836 engraving. In the previous instalments we took a tour round the principal landmarks, and gathered together Turner’s sketches. We can now review the watercolour and engraving in the light of Turner’s observations and interests.

Calais, an illustration to Walter Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather’, i.e. Calais Harbour, with the church of Notre Dame, Tour du Guet, Hotel de Ville and Porte de Mer, c.1834
Watercolour vignette, image approx 152 x 102 mm, on sheet, 444 x 345 mm
France, Calais, Musee du Calais
Image Sotheby’s 8 June 1999, lot 25

Looking at the watercolour and engraving in relation to the sketches and photographs, it does not take long to discover that both are routinely and consistently inaccurate.

[Click on any image to open in gallery view]

The Tour du Guet is almost unrecognisable. Its distinctive buttressed base is altogether lost, the octagonal form of the tower lost – particularly so in the engraving – and the lantern is enlarged to the same width as the tower.

The belfry of the old Hotel de Ville is completely rebuilt. It gains angled buttresses, loses its base and octagonal shape [although those were dispensed with even in the sketch] and gains a sharply cut form as if it were made of metal, cut almost as crisply as the chandelier in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage portrait.

The Church of Notre Dame has a very distinctive squat two-stage spire, and although Turner sketched that correctly, he failed to record that the corner finials stand inside the edge of the tower. In the watercolour the distinguishing step of the spire is forgotten and in the engraving the whole is reduced pretty much to a cipher.

The Colonne Louis XVIII is one of the few architectural elements to be represented reasonably accurately. although Turner appears to have had only an incidental sketch to which he could refer. It is something of a wonder that it is at all recognisable in the watercolour. Even so, Turner is vague about the tall base on which it stands, and that ends up being replaced by a short square plinth in the engraving.

As for the Porte de Havre and the Porte de Mer, it seems by reference to the sketch that Turner meant the gate in the watercolour to be the Porte de Havre, but in truth the details in the watercolour are so vague that in effect the engraver was left merely to make something up.

This is all more than a little concerning to me. Over the years I have put in considerable effort to argue for Turner’s superiority in the depiction of place. I have demonstrated that he often sets traps, letting critics argue the patent impossibility of an effect or a detail, only to embarrass them in the analysis. I claim that no-one saw things so penetratingly as Turner, or stored up references so assiduously. Nor did anyone work so hard to find a better representation of a subject than any that had been achieved before. Given all this, Turner’s treatment of Calais presents a serious challenge. I do not think, however that it can be brushed of as carelessness or mistaken. We should, I think, assume that his waywardness was deliberate. Indeed that it was a provocation, and one that we should be willing to puzzle over.


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