Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  Continue reading


Straw men and quilts – British Folk Art, Tate Britain


Bellamy quilt (1890-91), Norfolk Museums Service

Bellamy quilt, 1890-91, Norfolk Museums Service

Bellamy Quilt detail

Bellamy quilt (detail)

In the days before box sets, multiplex cinemas and a gastro-pub on every high street, what was a courting couple to do during the evenings?  Without Walter White and some triple fried polenta wedges, Herbert Bellamy and his wife-to-be Charlotte Springall, had to find something else to occupy their time together in the months before their marriage in 1891.  The result was a quilt, stitched in laborious, Technicolor detail to show anything and everything that was relevant or important to the happy couple: a sword, a teapot, Queen Vic with Alfred, a tabby cat, the local boozer, a Norfolk seal, the score to Auld Lang Syne, their favourite cartoon character.  Nearly 125 years on, the quilt looks as good as new – Mrs B was unlikely to have let their painstaking work anywhere near the marital bed – and is a textile record of a relationship.  The quilt is currently hanging in Tate Britain as part of the gallery’s exhibition, British Folk Art, which showcases a wide-ranging, often bizarre, but ultimately enchanting collection of objects and pictures.  The Bellamy quilt was produced at home for the home, and although it has formed part of the textile collection at Norwich’s Carrow House since the 1970s, one cannot help but wonder whether Herbert and Charlotte would have been mystified at the thought of their bedclothes hanging in a major public exhibition.

The curators of this show have not set out to define folk art, and any questions as to whether or not something is art have been deliberately sidestepped.  Instead they have taken the field as it already stands; this is their starting point and this is what the viewer must accept as he enters the exhibition.  And with such thorny issues out of the way, here is a compilation of folk art’s greatest hits, a collection of some of the country’s best examples of the genre siphoned from museums and galleries around Britain.


Bone Cockerel (detail), Artist Unknown, Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Bone Cockerel (detail), Artist Unknown, 1797 – 1847, Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Time filling is a running theme in this exhibition, and many of the items on display were born out of a need for occupation.  A cockerel constructed from bits of bone Continue reading

Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.


John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  Continue reading