Sublime Sites

Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill

About the author

DH photo #250

Professor David Hill, University of Leeds

I have been working on Turner since the early 1970s concentrating mainly on subjects in the north of England, on the river Thames and in the Alps. North of England subjects led me to Cotman and Alpine subjects led me to Ruskin. I have also taken an interest in Turner’s contemporary Thomas Girtin, and in John Constable and explored subjects in Scotland, France, Germany (especially the Mosel and Rhine) and Italy (especially Venice and the Northern Lakes). Something from any and perhaps all of these areas will, I hope, find a place in this site. A list of my more substantial publications follows. All but one or two are long sold out, but may still be found on the lists of resellers. Try Amazon or abebooks.com. If you want a new copy do please badger the publishers. If enough of you enquire, they might well reprint! Currently I am thinking about a book that will focus on Turner’s exploration of a variety of different locations. I hope to include something from most areas of his activity: London, the south and north of England, the midlands, Scotland and Wales, plus a selection of European subjects, France (Alps, Paris, Seine, Loire, north, central and south), Germany (Mosel and Rhine, and more) Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and his favourite Italy – The northern Lakes, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice. I will probably call it ‘Sublime Sites’ to align it with this site. 2016 is the 200th anniversary of Turner’s tour of the north of England in 1816. That was the subject of my first book, In Turner’s Footsteps. In fact I covered only half of the material that Turner generated, and there is a lot more of great interest and beauty in the subject. Hopefully the anniversary will bring the opportunity for a new publication. On Cotman I’m developing a project on his Norfolk subjects, and am working on the idea of a major exhibition of his little studied later watercolours. I have also accumulated material on Ruskin’s Alpine work, and will hope to write a book of some kind. So much material.. so little time.. Hence the blog. At least I can get some of this out there as I go along.

Some of the books so far:

1980

Turner in Yorkshire. The catalogue of an exhibition held at York City Art Gallery, 7 June – 20 July

Turner in Yorkshire #250

This was edited by Richard Green, then curator at York City Art Gallery, and written mostly by myself drawing on research for my PhD at the Courtauld Institute, and on material supplied by my co-conspirator, the late and much-missed Stanley Warburton. The Rhine drawings were written up by the American scholar Mary Tussey, who for a few years in my student days was an early companion on Turner expeditions. The exhibition was a huge success; there were queues all around Exhibition Square and record attendances at the gallery.

1984

In Turner’s Footsteps (John Murray Publishers)

In Turners Footsteps #250

Exploring Turner’s major tour of the north of England in 1816. I had already spent a few years working out the exact subjects of Turner’s sketches, but in 1983 retraced the tour on the exact dates that Turner made his tour. So I set out from Otley in Wharfedale, not far from Leeds, on 17 July and returned there on 11 August. Turner made the tour on horseback, and stayed in coaching inns along the way. Horseback was out of the question, and inns beyond my budget, so I drove the route in a white Renault 5 and slept in a green Trigano tent. The weather was extraordinary. I swam every day at the waterfalls of Wensleydale. Nothing could have been further from Turner’s experience, which was to be soaked, bogged and benighted during the wettest summer on meteorological record. The work that he produced in response – one of the culminating points of his career according to John Ruskin – is however, perfect testimony to Turner’s relish for all the sensations of being in the world. The book reached no.1 in the Sunday Times bestsellers list, and won the Yorkshire Post Art Book of the Year award.

1992

Turner in the Alps (George Phillip Publishers) 

Turner Alps #250

This book retraced Turner’s tour of the Alps in 1802. There were several trips involved. The conveyance on this occasion was in a rather fine white Austin Montego, but the accommodation was still the little green tent. One trip involved lying in the tent for three days whilst it bucketed down in Lauterbrunnen. Another was made in the company of my son John, fourteen in 1991. He had a great time with an ice-axe we bought in Grindelwald, and managed to lock the keys in the car at Chamonix. Fortunately the boot was open, so with the aid of ice-axe and by inverting the boy and shoving him through a gap in the back seats, the day was saved. I was particularly happy with the book, and began to bring my own photography much more into play. Some of them took some getting. One day I had to make a 5 am getaway from a Lucerne campsite to photograph the Rigi. So quickly and silently out of the tent and into the car. One brief start of the engine and I could be out of the gate barely disturbing anyone’s sleep. It’s a shame that I had forgotten that I had stowed the camping chairs and table underneath the car. Still, there wasn’t much need to wipe the dew from the remains.

1993

Turner on the Thames (Yale University Press)

Thames #250

This was a very long time (nearly twenty years) in the making. It was started with my undergraduate dissertation. Most of the research was done on foot and I must have walked the Thames and Wey towpath several times over. In its early days the project was notorious for being an endless tour of pubs that Turner ‘might’ have frequented. And how many of them there were! The main focus was Turner’s expeditions in a small sailing boat in the year 1805. So naturally this had at some stage to be undertaken afloat. So we chartered the Silver Cygnet from Abingdon, with Captain Joe Pickard at the helm, David Morris as first mate and cabin boy John Hill. It could have been worse. At least some of the crockery made it back to the boatyard. Yale lavished lots of colour on reproductions of Turner’s extraordinary sketches, and also indulged my growing interest for photographing the sites as they are today. Surprisingly, no-one has yet staged a proper exhibition of this subject. I would be delighted to be asked!

1996

Turner in the North (Yale University Press)

Turner North #250

Again a long time in the making. None of the sites were more than a long day trip from home. The Montego had been commandeered by disaffected youth and left in a hedgerow on the Gipton Estate, so the conveyance was now a green Citroen Xantia. Very comfortable, at least when the suspension worked. The project was to reconstruct Turner’s 1797 tour of Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and the Lakes. It fitted into a series of exhibitions that I curated at Harewood House, near Leeds. Turner was commissioned to visit Harewood by Edward Lascelles, the son of the first Earl and used it as a springboard to make an extensive exploration of the north. My argument was that he set out as an architectural draftsman but his exposure to northern scenery turned him into a great poet of the landscape sublime. We had to put up covered walkways to shelter the waiting queues. Thank you to everyone who put up with the very uncertain summer in 1997. I hope the wettings were worth it. At least you can say that you enjoyed a thoroughly Turnerian  experience. Yale did a wonderful job with the presentation and packaging of the book and I thought the photographs worked really well with Turner’s sketches. It stayed in print a long time, and there might still be the odd unmarked copy around.

2000

Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta, (Regione Valle d’Aosta, Italy)

Turner Aosta #250

In some ways the highlight of my career. Certainly the most unreserved support and finance it has ever been my pleasure to work with. The regional government of Aosta approached me in 1996 to curate for them an exhibition on Turner’s association with the area. The Val d’Aosta runs south from Mont Blanc towards the plains of Turin. Turner made a pedestrian tour of the area when at the peak of his powers in 1836, and Aosta gave me carte blanche to borrow whatever I could, to explore the area as much as I liked, and to stage the exhibition in whatever form I thought would work best. I spent three years flying out to Turin, staying in the Hotel Europa in Aosta and haunting the old pathways and roads of the valley in Turner’s footsteps.  I think the Hotel Europa confused me for ‘Britain’s greatest artist’. On the first occasion I stayed there a huge book with a carved wooden cover was produced for me to add my mark to a history of celebrities and potentates.  Hoping that my hosts’ English might not detect the fraud immediately, I made sure that only the word ‘Turner’ was plainly legible. The exhibition was staged in bespoke display cases made by top-end designers from Venice, and the hospitality to lenders and curators was unstinting. Alongside the Turner exhibition was another by the contemporary sculptor Stephen Cox. We managed to synchronise our visits very well. Stephen was impressively well versed in the wines of the valley (the vineyards of Enfer d’Arvier were sketched by Turner), and we spent many a happy hour in the Val d’Aosta wine cellar, and Cesare’s trattoria. In between times I accumulated a huge number of photographs, and the specification for the catalogue was as enthusiatic as everything else. Rather alarmingly, we finalised the design and the printing in the two weeks before the exhibition opened, and I watched it come off the presses in Aosta three days before the official opening. There wasn’t as much time as we would have liked for correcting and proofing, but the volume is a visual feast. The catalogues sold out within days, and are now rare and very expensive. I’m sure another publisher could bring this back into print. Contact me!

2005

Cotman in the North (Yale University Press in association with Harewood House Trust)

Cotman book #250

Years under consideration, if not actually in the making. When I was a student it always seemed as if Cotman’s Yorkshire subjects would be  one of the plum subjects in the History of British Art. There were several Cotman specialists and I looked forward to one of them bringing out a proper treatment of the work, always widely regarded as his defining watercolours. After the early1980s, though, Cotman himself seemed to fall out of scholarly favour. The years went by with few detailed study of any aspects of Cotman’s work, so with the bicentenary of his great year in Yorkshire, 1805, coming around, Harewood joined forces with the Bowes Museum to put on a comprehensive exhibition. Yale once again made a beautiful book out of the subject, and the works looked stunning in the two venues. At Harewood some of the works were installed in the very house in which they were conceived. The exhibitions were very popular, considering that Cotman seemed largely to have slipped off the wider public’s radar. My feeling is that in his own time Cotman had such a refined aesthetic as to be invisible to the most. He doesn’t speak loudly or demonstratively. The northern press and public took to him very enthusiastically but he was completely lost on the London nationals  Stand up the New York Review of Books. They ran a two-page spread fully appreciating Cotman’s value.

2009

Turner and Leeds: Image of Industry (Jeremy Mills publishers in association with Leeds City Museums)

Leeds #325

I didn’t have to travel very far in order to write this, which is just as well since most of the work was done in the autumn of 2008 when I was laid up with a broken leg having fallen on the cliff path at Staithes. Eventually I managed to get moving on my bicycle, with a crutch strapped to the crossbar, and cycled up Beeston Hill to Turner’s viewpoint of Leeds. The book was commissioned by Leeds Museums to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the borough of Leeds. I found myself making quite a surprising claim; that Turner’s 1816 watercolour of Leeds (now at the Yale Center for British Art in the United States) was the first picture in the world of an industrial cityscape. I never thought it would stand, but no-one has yet offered an alternative. The truth is that Leeds was the first proper industrial city. There was lot of industry elsewhere, and earlier, but only in Leeds did it form such a continuous development The book sets Turner’s picture of Leeds in a more extended consideration of his work in the north, and explores the complications of Turner’s attitude to industry. Excited certainly, but recognising its considerable social cost. This book is still available to buy. Try Leeds Museums outlets or the Hepworth in Wakefield where the last time I was there it was (rather gratifyingly) one of the most prominent offerings in the whole shop! It seems plainly obvious that Leeds City Art Gallery should borrow the watercolour to show it in Leeds at some stage. I’m still waiting…

2012

‘Perfection, I should call it: John Ruskin’s Personalised Guide to Switzerland, 1843′, in the British Art Journal, Vol.XIII, no.1, Summer 2012

Gries pass Panorama #650

The Gries Pass, Switzerland, looking south, evening, June 2011. Photo David Hill

This article published for the first time an important letter written by John Ruskin to his friend and fellow-artist George Richmond in 1843. Richmond was planning a trip to Italy, and Ruskin prescribed him a lengthy tour to the Alps. In the process Ruskin reviewed most of the places he had visited in his youth and early maturity, and laid down plans and ambitions for the remainder of his days. I visited many of the places that he mentions in the letter, and wrote a commentary on Ruskin’s early associations with those places in lengthy footnotes to the letter. Some of the places are relatively little visited now. The Gries Pass seemed especially deserted when I was there. Others proved impressively demanding to reach. One site at the foot of the Aiguille Blaitiere above Chamonix proved elusive. The occasion of some amazing cloud effects, but still not quite yet the right place. At least I worked out where Ruskin actually had been. Another visit appears to be required. Perhaps next Spring…

Aiguille Blaitiere #600

Beneath the Aiguille Blaitiere, Chamonix – on the wrong moraine, June 2011. Photo: David Hill

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