Lights will guide you home: Turner at Calais #7

This article concludes the consideration of Turner’s watercolour and 1836 engraving of the harbour at Calais. In the previous instalment I claimed that the engraving was representative of the cutting edge of image technology. Here I propose that the same edge cuts through the content.

The lighthouse itself is a beacon to modernity. Though lighthouses as such dated back to antiquity, and although eighteenth-century advances in engineering meant that they could now be built in exposed situations, they were still limited by their light source. As late as 1810 the Eddystone Lighthouse was lit by candles.

The light source was revolutionised by the invention in 1782 of the Argand lamp, which produced much brighter and steadier light, burning oil. This became the standard for a century, and was dramatically enhanced by the invention of the Fresnel lens, first used in 1823 and widely installed thereafter.

Rama, CeCILL <;, via Wikimedia Commons

This focused the light into a revolving beam that carried brightly to the horizon, and quickly a complete network of lights was developed in the English Channel, each with unique signature flash intervals so that they could be identified.

Maritime traffic had also been revolutionised. Steam propulsion entered service between Dover and Calais with the ‘Rob Roy’ in 1821, but from 1822 there were several paddle steamers in service, and new vessels were introduced almost annually. Turner was ever at the forefront of developments in travel and communications, and he would have appreciated a reliable crossing in about three hours, albeit one much less attuned to the adventure of wind and tide.

There was an expanding market for both packets and passengers. Coach services to and from the ports increased as did hospitality and services, and traffic increased commensurately. The greatest modernity in all this was an extended period of peace. After the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 whilst the conservative establishment clung on to old nationalisms, antipathies and prejudices, any real barriers to travel were progressively removed and routes improved. Turner was in the van of artistic renegotiation of concepts of the continent. Borders were transcended, opportunities arose for exchange in goods, people, money, culture and ideas. Horizons expanded and so did minds. Abroad became somewhere desirable, and foreigners people with whom to converse and even respect and admire. The dreamwork was constructed of all manner of polarities: Industry vs nature, home vs abroad, freedom of movement vs invasion, international consciousness vs sequestered localism, exploration vs settling down, change vs conservatism, optimism vs trepidation; and excitement vs fear, and in this process exceptionalism and insularity began to dissolve.

The picture is set simultaneously at the moments of arrival and departure. The artist puts us aboard a vessel coming into harbour whilst a paddle-steamer is just leaving the quay. The harbour and boats are thronging with people. He also gives us the state of heightened receptiveness to which the mind opens when switched on to the new. Calais offers a beacon of navigation in both literal and metaphorical sense; its light a guide to enhanced and enlarged experience and opportunity.

I need hardly labour the point that this speaks both to the historical and the contemporary situation. What might Turner have made of itinerants carrying rubber dinghies down to the water and putting off into the cold waters of the English Channel? What would he have thought of the notion that the opportunities of movement ought to be denied? He could no doubt be as jingoistic as anyone, but above all he understood the interconnectedness of people and places, and how much better it would be to embrace that, rather than to resist.

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