Late Turner – Painting Set Free

John Westbrooke goes to Tate Britain and discovers that one of Britain’s greatest artists was not as mad in later life as people claimed

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It used to be widely felt that Joseph William Mallord Turner was a great British artist who, in old age, was losing the plot. Even his biggest cheerleader, the critic John Ruskin, said his later paintings showed “senile decrepitude”. Queen Victoria thought he was mad. The great flares of almost abstract sunlight, the eccentric circular works in square frames – was he still a serious painter?

This is the question behind Late Turner – Painting Set Free, at Tate Britain in London until January 25 – and echoed in other exhibitions of what is now widely called “late art”, including Matisse’s cut-outs, recently ended at Tate Modern, and another on late Rembrandt beginning at the National Gallery next month. Focusing on his last 15 years, from 1835 (when he turned 60) till his death in 1851, it makes a convincing case that, yes, creativity blazes as brightly as ever, even if the body can’t always keep up.

Rain, Steam and Speed may be the best-known work on show, an early train shown thundering over a bridge across the Thames. What younger painter would have dared to paint speed? And yet, aged almost 70, that’s what Turner did: around the fringes of the picture you can make out a smoky horizon, another bridge, a fisherman with an umbrella, a hare scuttling in front; but it’s the furious charge of the locomotive, its fires somehow visible through its metal casing, that grabs the attention. The novelist Thackeray thought it would break out of the canvas and rush through Charing Cross. Though he still painted landscapes of the ancient world, full of biblical characters or Latin gods and temples, Turner was unafraid of depicting the onrush of modern technology.

Nor did he restrict himself to his homeland. His contemporary John Constable disapproved of foreigners and wouldn’t even go to Paris to be awarded a medal by the king; but Europe was open again to tourists after the end of the Napoleonic wars and Turner made several tours until he was 70, equally at home depicting Venice by moonlight and Swiss avalanches.

He loved the sea, too, portraying whalers stuck in the ice and the sun rising over sea monsters. When it was at its worst, he was at his best. For Snow Storm, when he was about 65, he had himself lashed to a ship’s mast for four hours (or said he did), and the result is a great whirling vortex: we can hardly tell whether the ship he paints is spinning into a horizontal cave of water – or if it’s still and we’re spinning. One critic still dismissed it as “soapsuds and whitewash”, leaving him spluttering. And when Parliament burnt down one night in 1834, he was there (as was Constable, and some 40 other painters), hiring a boat so he could get closer to it all, depicting sheets of flame making old Waterloo Bridge as bright as day. What might have been a sober record of a catastrophe looks more like revelling in the apocalypse.

As for his square paintings – all nine, gathered into one room at the Tate – photo editors will tell you that square is the most undynamic shape there is. But in Turner’s hands, it serves to focus contemplation. One encompasses a golden throng the morning after Noah’s flood recedes; another contemplates Napoleon in exile on the shore; a third, of a ship with dead-black sails, commemorates the burial at sea of his friend David Wilkie, another painter.

Turner’s health did fade. In an age before modern medicine, artists, like anyone else, had problems. Matisse began working with scissors because he could no longer hold a brush. Arthritic Renoir had his brush strapped to his hand. Monet painted his water lilies through the blur of cataracts. Turner shared their difficulties. He started to feel the winter cold, he drank a lot of sherry and gin (this may have worsened his own cataracts, which some think caused him to overdo the yellows in his work); the lead in his paints may have affected him. He lost his teeth – there’s even a death mask on display, showing his dramatically sunken cheeks.

But his mind was clearly undimmed, whatever the queen and the critics thought. He produced less, and sometimes just contented himself with reworking older paintings. Some of his later works appear formless, as if he were trying to paint air; though maybe they were just unfinished. Modern critics occasionally suggest he prefigured impressionism or even abstraction, but that’s a half-truth at best: he painted in his studio, using the open air only for sketches, and he painted things rather than abstractions, even if they were just indistinct sunshine effects. But look at Rain, Steam and Speed, the work of a man almost 70, and you can only think, “If that’s senile decrepitude, can I get some?”

The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free
Tate Britain
10 September 2014 – 25 January 2015

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