Turner & Italy
A new exhibition at the National Galleries focuses on JMW Turner’s love affair with Italy, and the country’s influence on his work, as Liz Shannon discovers
An exhibition of paintings by JMW Turner may seem a time-worn prospect, but the National Galleries are offering a new take on the man and his work. ‘Turner came to Scotland six times, but he visited Italy on seven occasions,’ says Christopher Baker, Deputy Director of the National Galleries and organiser of Turner and Italy. ‘Other than Britain, Turner loved Italy more than any other country.’
Any notion of Turner loafing around Italy is quashed by the realities of 19th century travel, which required that the artist equip himself with a sword, which he rakishly kept concealed in an umbrella. ‘One of the important themes of the exhibition involves the practicalities of travelling across Europe at this time,’ says Baker. ‘We know that Turner was involved in two major coach crashes, and that he was worried about bandits.’ Hence the umbrella/sword.
The exhibition follows Turner from his formation in London, schooled in Italian Classical and Renaissance traditions, through early experiences of Italy, to his last visit, and includes works in oil and watercolour, sketchbooks and books taken from his library. Baker is particularly excited by this latter prospect: ‘These books allow us to get inside Turner’s head. They illustrate his bank of knowledge – being able to include them in the exhibition is a great coup.’
Italy was a continual inspiration, as demonstrated by the artist’s repeated visits. ‘Turner was the youngest ever Royal Academician, and visiting Italy was central to his becoming a fully rounded artist,’ says Baker. ‘Many artists only visited Italy once, but Turner surpassed all his contemporaries.’ Although he completed around 24 sketchbooks during his first trip to Rome, Italy did more than just provide subjects for artworks. As Baker points out, ‘Turner took his experience in Italy home with him, and used it to interpret and depict his British subjects. His experience of Mediterranean light was absolutely vital.’ Thus, the exhibition brings together works painted in and featuring both Britain and Italy, from a number of high-profile international collections. ‘The observations that Turner made on his visits to Italy had a cumulative quality,’ Baker continues. ‘1844’s ‘Approach to Venice’ was completed in Britain in the artist’s studio, but it depicts a perfect dream of the city.’ It moved John Ruskin to rhapsodise that it was ‘the most perfectly beautiful piece of colour of all that I have seen produced by human hands, by any means, or at any period.’
Turner’s love of Italy echoed a popular romantic enthusiasm for the country, which is still alive today. A canny businessman, Turner’s art was not restricted to those who could personally view his paintings: turning his watercolours into popular engravings was key to his success. ‘These views were meant for armchair travellers in Britain who were not in a position to travel themselves,’ says Baker. ‘They were a potent, seductive means of vicarious travel.’ While the credit crunch, rather than marauding bandits, may keep people home this summer, Turner’s work may once again enable us to escape to foreign lands.
Turner and Italy, National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh, Fri 27 Mar–Sun 7 Jun.