Lights will guide you home: Turner at Calais #5

This article continues the consideration of Turner’s watercolour and 1836 engraving of the harbour at Calais. In the last we encountered numerous issues with Turner’s rendition of the key landmarks. Here we begin to wonder what might be made of his waywardness.

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

In the last part, I deliberately said that we might “puzzle over” this problem. I might have said “puzzle out” but works of art don’t have singular meanings they offer potentialities. Different eyes see different things, and great works offer manifold possibilities, and sometimes those possibilities are contradictory, undecided, held in tension or opposition. As Bill Mitchell phrased it they are a “dreamwork”, the imaginative space in which consciousness constructs its sense of the world. The real point is that in puzzling over these spaces we should be willing to accept and remain receptive to contrariness and surprise. Turner’s pictures are dreamworks of an astonishingly dynamic period of consciousness. They might, if we admit it, also speak to an equally demanding contemporary expansion of consciousness.

We might begin illuminate the character of Turner’s imaginative materials by comparing his treatment of Calais with some contemporary treatments of exactly the same material. The British Museum has an aquatint of a subject by Richard Parkes Bonington taken about 1823. The National Gallery of Canada has the pencil sketch on which this composition was based:

The British Museum also has an etching of the same subject by Samuel Prout. The watercolour on which this was based is at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster. The Courtauld Institute has a copy of this by Ruskin himself, and the Yale Centre for British Art, Nen Haven has yet another version. This is not so well resolved as the others, and is tentatively attributed to James Holland, but it seems more likely to me to be Prout’s original on-the-spot sketch, used as the basis of the Lancaster drawing and thus the etching.

The views of Calais by Bonington and Prout are full of quiet personality, and a sense of composed observation. They show immediately how extraordinary is the Turner. It is positively operatic in its topographical and architectural idiosyncrasy, and astonishing in its experiential intensity. It plainly never intended anything like ordinary observation. Instead of the light and space of day, Turner gives us the disorienting conditions of night. We piece together our idea of the place by the revolving beam of a lighthouse: Impressions of towers and spires flash shapes and silhouettes upon our consciousness .

Few scholars have ever had much to say about this composition. Jan Piggot (1993, p.57) is one of the few:  ‘The ‘Calais’ is a supreme nightpiece: the lighthouse casts its light on the Hotel de Ville and on the English packet boat, which is arriving on the oily-looking harbour waters’. Piggot implies that we are in the midst of an actual experience, seen not just on the eye, but from the midst of a perceiving mind.  Who else would have thought of painting such a scene at night? Still more the instantaneous impression of a belfry lit up in the revolving beam of a lighthouse? Or, more extraordinarily, who would set aside carefully accumulated information, in order to imagine the shapes that such material might instead cut upon the perception, in the moment of such an event?

Ruskin was struck with how powerfully Turner retained and drew upon experience: He spoke of his Calais subjects in PreRaphaelitism, 1851, paras 46-48 (Works 12: 380-81).

46. I have already spoken of his gigantic memory: it is especially necessary to notice this, in order that we may understand the kind of grasp which a man of real imagination takes of all things that are once brought within his reach – grasp thenceforth not to be relaxed for ever. On looking over any catalogues of his works, or of particular series of them, we shall notice the recurrence of the same subject two, three, or even many times. In any other artist this would be nothing remarkable. Probably, most modern landscape painters multiply a favourite subject twenty, thirty, or sixty fold, putting the shadows and the clouds in different places, and ‘inventing,’ as they are pleased to call it, a new ‘effect’ every time. But if we examine the successions of Turner’s subjects, we shall find them either the records of a succession of impressions actually received by him at some favourite locality, or else repetitions of one impression received in early youth, and again and again realised as his increasing powers enabled him to do better justice to it. In either case we shall find them records of seen facts; never compositions in his room to fill up a favourite outline.

47. For instance, every traveller – at least, every traveller of thirty years’ standing – must love Calais, the place where he first felt himself in a strange world. Turner evidently loved it excessively. I have never catalogued his studies of Calais, but I remember, at this moment, five: there is first the ‘Pas de Calais’,

a very large oil painting, which is what he saw in broad daylight as he crossed over, when he got near the French side. It is a careful study of French fishing-boats running for the shore before the wind, with the picturesque old city in the distance. Then there is the ‘Calais Harbour’ in the Liber Studiorum:

that is what he saw just as he was going into the harbour – a heavy brig warping out, and very likely to get in his way or run against the pier, and bad weather coming on. Then there is the ‘Calais Pier,’ a large painting, engraved some years ago by Mr. Lupton:

that is what he saw when he had landed, and ran back directly to the pier to see what had become of the brig. The weather had got still worse, the fishwomen were being blown about in a distressful manner on the pier head, and some more fishing-boats were running in with all speed. Then there is the ‘Fort Rouge,’ Calais: [Bury Art Gallery]

that is what he saw after he had been home to Dessein’s,[The Hotel d’Angleterre at Calais, closed 1860] and dined, and went out again in the evening to walk on the sands, the tide being down. He had never seen such a waste of sands before, and it made an impression on him. The shrimp-girls were all scattered over them too, and moved about in white spots on the wild shore; and the storm had lulled a little, and there was a sunset – such a sunset! – and the bars of Fort Rouge seen against it, skeleton-wise. He did not paint that directly; thought over it – painted it a long while afterwards.

48. Then there is the vignette in the illustrations to Scott.

That is what he saw as he was going home, meditatively; and the revolving lighthouse came blazing out upon him suddenly, and disturbed him. He did not like that so much; made a vignette of it, however, when he was asked to do a bit of Calais, twenty or thirty years afterwards, having already done all the rest. Turner never told me all this, but any one may see it if he will compare the pictures. They might, possibly, not be impressions of a single day, but of two days or three; though, in all human probability, they were seen just as I have stated them; but they are records of successive impressions, as plainly written as ever traveller’s diary. All of them pure veracities. Therefore immortal.

Ruskin later came to own and love the Prout. He even copied it [see above] and said of it ‘Sketch on the spot, of the best time and highest quality, – the clouds put in as they stood, the brig as she lay, the figures where they measure the space of sand, and give the look of busy desolateness, which poor Calais – crown jewel of England – had fallen to in our day, Prout’s and mine. You see the size of the seam packet of the period: you may trust Prout’s measure of its magnitude .. so also of belfry, lighthouse and church, – very dear all to the old painter as to me.’ (Works, 14/408).

It is interesting that Ruskin, as well as he knew Calais, never expressed any doubts over the veracity of Turner’s depiction. He believed, rather, that all these impressions came from Turner’s first sight of Calais in 1801, but it is clear that they accumulated over several visits. Nonetheless his essential point holds good. That the vignette of Calais is founded in, and true to experience. In the next part we will make some attempt to tease out some other strands woven into this dreamwork.


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