Lights will guide you home: Turner at Calais #6

This article continues the consideration of Turner’s watercolour and 1836 engraving of the harbour at Calais. In the previous instalment we contrasted Turner’s view with some more straightforward treatments of the subject. Here we begin to explore the range of aspects woven into it.

A dreamwork is churned first in the imagination of the artist, takes form in the work, and comes to life in the mind of the viewer. It may provoke a variety of significances, even to a single viewer and a multitude in a culture. Yet, nonetheless, the work offers distinct signposts and markers. Perhaps we can look to the work as it was actually presented to its public to take some bearings.

The watercolour was commissioned by Edinburgh publisher Robert Cadell to be engraved for volume 27 of a new edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Miscellaneous Prose Works.  This was a series of twenty-eight small (6 ½ x 4 in; 170 x 105 mm) volumes priced at 5 shillings each and issued monthly over two years 1834-36. Each volume contained an engraved frontispiece and title-page vignette designed by Turner. The introduction of new engraving techniques on steel in the 1820s, together with advances in papermaking and printing, advertising and distribution made much greater print runs possible and publishers could produce handsome editions in enormous quantities at readily affordable prices. The buying public expanded commensurately and Cadell made a breakthrough success with a popular illustrated edition of Scott’s Poetry, and another of Scott’s Novels. The poetry sold in the tens of thousands, and the Novels and the Prose reached a genuinely popular audience.

Twenty years earlier, some of the books illustrated by Turner were the size of a Gutenberg Bible, and any attempt at reading required a lectern. Cadell’s Scott was designed to be held in the hand, and offer an entirely different reading experience, both in nature and in audience. When Turner’s History of Richmondshire (illustrated above) was published between 1819 and 1823 it cost twenty-four guineas for twelve parts, plus the cost of binding into two volumes. When Scott’s Prose Works was published it cost £7 for twenty-eight volumes and was issued ready bound.

Adele Romany (attrib) Young lady reading a book, c.1820?

The larger format suggests a more public disquisition, the smaller a more individual immersion. Gentlemen bought the larger tomes for their libraries, and controlled the disposal of their contents. The smaller tomes attracted buyers of more modest means, were capable of being read anywhere, held in the hand. The huge expansion of the publishing market widened access by cost, gender and class sufficiently to render the traditional educated establishment in the minority.

There were small books with illustrations in the eighteenth century [even one with Turners – see the Pocket Magazine], but Turner engravings by the 1830s had a tonal depth and impact that was unprecedented. Steel engraving additionally permitted such microscopic work that the detail seems to unfold progressively, as if the image was a living world into which the viewer could dissolve and explore.

Perhaps the most significant aesthetic factor was that a work of such power and quality could be delivered into the hands of almost any interested individual. The size and character of the image mediated an ungoverned, interiorised, consideration, and offered a space in which to escape the quotidian, discover personal aspirations and desires, and formulate plans and opportunities.

Images such as Turner’s Calais in the 1830s constituted the cutting edge of representational technology. Engraving on steel called for the utmost skills of etching and engraving on material that was the product of pioneering technical, engineering and chemical development. The printing was undertaken on new machinery that required systems of workshop organisation subject to constant innovation. Papermaking was being revolutionised on an industrial scale. In the engraving of Turner’s Calais, the diminutive page expresses the ultimate expression of the whole infrastructure and logistics of print production at this point. All this, however, would have been nothing without an artist of Turner’s ability to challenge the technology and the technicians to the full expression of the new potential.


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