J. E. (John Evan) Hodgson.

The Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 online

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with Nature he never for one single instant forgot Art. Every-
thing he did, to the hastiest pencil scratch, underwent transfor-
mation in the doing ; it was disintegrated and recombined into
an organic whole. In the National Gallery there are, let us say,
many hundreds of sketches by him, and there is not one which
does not suggest the elements of a completed picture. But,
unfortunately, in his completed pictures there is not always the
charm suggested by his sketches ; they, many of them, have a
look of things not taken au grand serieux, of canvases upon
which he amused himself by practising alterations. Occasionally,
as it appears to us, he seems to have been untrue to his mission,
and to have sat down indolently and carelessly to multiply un-
necessary detail, and, moreover, to insist upon it with the
unmeaning emphasis which belongs rather to tapestry than

The first essential to insure just and instructive criticism is,
that it be directed from the standpoint of the artist, without
which his work must be seen in false and distorted perspective ;
but after making every effort to align ourselves with Turner, it
appears to us that in such pictures as the "Bay of Baiae,"
" Apollo," and the " Sibyl " in the National Collection, the result
does not justify the means either from the point of view of
Nature or of Art. On the other hand, such canvases as " The
Frosty Morning," " Spithead," " Crossing the Brook," " Ulysses
deriding Polyphemus," " The Old Ttmeraire? and " The Build-
ing of Carthage," are completely convincing. They are all
perfect and of a piece, without a discordant feature ; we follow
the painter's conception through all intricacies, and are never
turned aside.

These six pictures place Turner at the head of the landscape


painters of all time. If we indulgently admit that Claude has
equalled or even surpassed them in grace of form and trans-
parency of atmosphere, they soar immeasurably above him in
imaginative power, as they do above Poussin, Salvator Rosa,
Van de Velde, Wilson, Ruysdael, Constable, and the modern
French school.

In describing the qualities of Art we are forced to adopt
terms which refer to cognate sentiments in other departments
of thought, terms which are accepted as established metaphors ;
hence we speak of majesty and dignity as descriptive of certain
combinations of forms, tones, and colours which impress the
mind in a peculiar way. These qualities Turner possessed in
the most eminent degree. Indeed, he had the faculty of invest-
ing the face of Nature with an aspect corresponding with the
momentousness, the importance, or even the playfulness of the
subject he was representing ; and his " Liber Studiorum," though
unfortunately never completed, is still the most varied record of
artistic adaptability to sentiment which the world has seen.
Ruysdael, in such pictures as " The Windmill," " On the Maas,"
and Corot, in his best works, touch a deep note of melancholy
solemnity, but that was nearly all they gave, whereas Turner
seems to play on the whole gamut of human emotions. He is
so subtle that he defies analysis. Take, for instance, "The
Frosty Morning " and ask what there is in that picture, either
in what it represents, or in the lines of its composition, to
account for its extraordinary popularity? Nothing, so far as
we can see, and yet that picture in some mysterious way is
fraught with memories ; before it the mind reverts to other
days and far-off scenes : it is as suggestive as those most
suggestive lines

"When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail."

And to have achieved this in a picture so simple indicates the
highest amount of imaginative power.


We do not agree with all the sentiments expressed in
Modern Painters. It was not necessary in order to enhance
the fame of Turner to detract from the true merits of others ;
but it seems to us established beyond contention on the evidence
of his life's work, that Turner's imagination in depth, variety,
and scope far exceeded that of any other landscape painter.

If we turn from imaginative qualities to the rendering of
facts of Nature, to the objective truth of representation, we seem
to see a still greater interval. But here, to form a just opinion,
recourse must be had more particularly to his water-colour draw-
ings. They represent in an unbroken series the whole art energy
of his life, and all the phases of its development ; they are
utterly untouched by whatever circumstances may have turned
awry or thwarted his development as an oil painter. There
appears to have been something wrong, either in Turner's theory
or practice as an oil painter. In the National Collection there are
one hundred and ninety-five oil pictures by him, and it contains
a larger proportion of failures, of incongruous, ill-digested, bizarre,
and obscure things than should be with a man of his genius.

But not so with his drawings. There the record of earnest,
uninterrupted, progressive, and profoundly thoughtful effort to
attain perfection is unbroken. After the age of twenty his
drawings began to show ever more and more firmness and
accomplishment. He was learning to manage and co-ordinate
large masses, and to give depth of tone, influenced evidently in
this latter respect by his friend Girtin. In 1802, when he was
twenty-seven, he executed a large drawing of Kilchurn Castle,
Loch Awe, which was re-exhibited in the Winter Exhibition of
the Royal Academy in 1887. Here we find him completely
emancipated from all the thraldom of prescription. We find in
it a mountain rightly drawn for the first time in the history of
Art. He has given the inclination of its beds, their weathering
and fissuring by the action of water, the piling-up of detritus in
hollows and at its base ; the construction of it, in fact, is made
apparent, and if we compare this with the conglomeration of


unclassified matter which had in previous Art done duty as a
mountain, we must acknowledge that it was a creditable step in
advance for a young man of twenty-seven to have made. From
that time forward he never ceased in his onward progress, ever
analysing and observing, rendering with more and more certainty
and knowledge the forms of the solid earth, the growth of trees,
the forms of water, of waves, torrents, clouds, spray, and mist,
delighting beyond measure in the glamour of flitting light and
shade which mists and vapours shed over a landscape, giving it
a touch of mystery and indistinctness which excite the imagina-
tion like a tale half told.

Between the years 1816, when he executed a beautiful
series of drawings in the West Riding, and in Richmond in
Yorkshire, to the year 1820, he attained the highest perfection
in the delineation of form. His colouring up to this time had
been subdued, his palette had been charged only with pale
blues, browns, greys, and olive greens. But after 1820 he
entered upon what is known as his second period. He may
have said to himself at that time, that he had done enough
in the way of form, that there was another world of impalpable
evanescent beauties, of colours and reflections, things like
dreams which pass and go, leaving no trace behind them,
and these he set to work to record. Like Humboldt, who
began his Kosmos with stating the elementary laws of physics
and ended with a description of all the most abstruse pheno-
mena of mind, Turner felt his Kosmos would not be complete
without the intangible dreamy side of nature. Accordingly,
after 1820 we find him indulging in gorgeous colouring, in
fleeting effects, seen only at rare intervals, such as sunsets
amongst cirrous clouds, and mountains glowing in the last
rays of the sun. Amongst oil pictures "Polyphemus" in the
National Collection is a very typical example of this period,
and amongst water-colours " Knaresborough " and " Rivaulx
Abbey." His touch in water-colours now became easier and
lighter, he was less precise, often suggesting quantity and


detail by play of colour, and the drawings of this period in
which he set himself simply to record scenes in nature are,
as Mr Ruskin says, "faultlessly magnificent."

But it was also the period of extravagancies, of composi-
tions encumbered with detail, and the love of light which was
growing upon him led him into endless subtleties of gradation
which sometimes injured the solidity and unity of the effect.

In his later years this desire for intensity of light gave
rise to one of the strangest whims that ever entered into a
painter's brain, as M. Chesneau has pointed out. Turner dis-
integrated colours into their primary elements of red, blue,
and yellow, using these independently in touches placed side
by side. His idea, no doubt, was that their combined effect
on the retina would produce the effects of white light. There
is no denying the intense brilliancy of some of his later works,
such, for instance, as " Phryne going to the Bath," but it is
extremely questionable how far that is owing to the artifice he

Reason and common sense tell us that when a painter
violates the impressions of nature generally received, he must
put himself out of court, and accordingly we find that Turner's
later pictures are an enigma to ordinary mortals. It is quite
possible to those who will it, and it is very tempting to those
who wish to be superfine, to see in them transcendent merit
which is only revealed to the highest culture. We do not
ourselves profess to be utter Philistines. In his latest works,
even in the wildest of them, we recognise a grand artistic
faculty, but they seem to us to be faulty, because they insist
upon one quality at the expense of all the others. It is a
very grand effect, and one which has fascinated all great
painters and colourists, when large masses of light are seen to be
defined and yet to melt into one another ; but the definition
is essential ; without it a picture merely represents the aspect
of primordial chaos after the first fiat, " Let there be light."
And Turner himself had, in his second period, given the most


superb and masterly rendering of this effect, to take one
instance out of many, in his " Knaresborough," where the town
with its ruined castle all aglow with full evening light, is
relieved against an equally luminous sky, while below it is the
hill equally ablaze, with a white path, cattle and figures relieved
against it sharply, light telling against light, one merging into
the other but never losing itself, maintaining its sharpness
and definition. But it is said, and there seems a certain colour
of probability in it, that late in his life Turner's sight became
intensely astigmatic. In many of his latest Venetian pictures
and sketches there is hardly an indication of a horizontal line,
everything is on the vertical principle ; and the inability to
discern horizontal lines is said to be a symptom of astigmatism.
According to Mr Ruskin, the last picture Turner painted
with quite undiminished powers was " The Fighting Temeraire
towed to her Last Berth." That grand old ship, which had
stood the stress and the piled-up agony of so many hours of
doubtful strife, has ended her career and is going to be broken
up. Her past glories are sinking with the setting sun, and the
coming night is already above the horizon. It is a picture typical
of Turner's own career ; he too had fought as none else had
done, and this, his last great effort, is tinged with the glory
of a gorgeous sunset. In some respects it is the most splendid
of his works, not technically, perhaps, but imaginatively. It
appears to focus all his views on Art, to explain and account
for many aberrant strivings. It is not given even to an intel-
lect like Turner's to command and control the wayward flights
of a great imagination, but in this picture of the " Fighting
Temeraire " we see the complete synthesis, the union of objec-
tive truth with sentiment, which is the underlying effort of his
life's work.

Turner, in the early part of his career, lived with his father
the hairdresser in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, but in 1793
his address in the catalogues is changed to Hand Court,


Maiden Lane, where he continued until after his election as
Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799, when he was twenty-
four years of age. The Royal Academy was evidently not
slow in recognising his genius, as we find that only three years
after he was elected full Academician, and in 1807 Professor of
Perspective. His first trip abroad, which resulted in Lord
Yarborough's beautiful picture of the " Vintage of Macon," was
made in 1802, the year of his election. In 1800 he moved to 64
Harley Street ; the year after to 75 Norton Street, Portland Road ;
and in 1804 back again to 64 Harley Street. In 1812 he bought
the house in Queen Anne Street. From 1809 to 1811 in addi-
tion to his London address he gives also West End, Upper Mall,
Hammersmith; and from 1814 to 1826 he had a country house
at Twickenham, which he called Sandycombe Lodge.

In 1851 Turner was missed from his accustomed haunts, he
appeared no more at the meetings of the Royal Academy,
which he had always regularly attended, and he had dis-
appeared from his house in Queen Anne Street. All his life
through he had encompassed himself with mystery, and had
let none know of his goings to and fro ; but on this occasion as
his health was known to be breaking there was a great anxiety
amongst his friends, and his faithful old housekeeper, Mrs
Ellen Danby, was in great trepidation. By accident a clue to
his whereabouts was discovered, and he was found dying in
a small cottage in Chelsea, where he had been known by the
name of Booth. Such was the end of this remarkable man, un-
questionably one of the great geniuses in Art, the select few
who can be enumerated on the fingers of your hands.

He was buried with much pomp and circumstance in St
Paul's Cathedral, on the 3rd December 1851, and a statue
was erected to his memory, with a sum of money which he
bequeathed in his will for that purpose. Of this will itself we
shall speak presently.

Thornbury says that Turner in his youth was disappointed
in a love affair, and that this event cast a gloom upon his life ;


he became a blighted being, with no hope on this side of the
grave, or on the other, and drifted into an "entangled and
ill-thought-out existence."

Ruskin puts his case differently. t( Imagine," he says, " what
it was for a man to live seventy years in this hard world with
the kindest heart and the noblest intellect of his time, and never
to meet with a single word or ray of sympathy, until he felt him-
self sinking into the grave. From the time he knew his true
greatness, all the world was against him ; no one understood
him, no one trusted him, and everyone cried out against him."

It would seem from these two accounts that the exigencies
of fine writing may at times lead authors into extremes. From
Mr Fawkes of Farnley, Mr Munro, and Mr Trimmer, not to
mention a number of other life-long friends of Turner, he must
have received "a word or ray of sympathy," and after all a
man does not become embittered and disappointed except he
is neglected and has to suffer poverty. Turner all through
his extraordinary industrious life amassed money hand over
hand, by the sale of his drawings and by the profits of the
engravings of his works; and he died worth 140,000. It
does not seem likely that the non-sale of his oil pictures
should have affected him much, especially when we find that he
bought back those that he had sold whenever he had a chance.

We doubt very much whether Turner was a morose and
disappointed man. He had an especial affection for the Royal
Academy the body that early recognised his merits, and
enrolled him amongst its members ; and towards it he felt a life-
long gratitude. The Royal Academy was " his mother," as he
used to say, and on the annual varnishing days before the
exhibition, he perpetrated nearly all the jovial sayings and doings
which are recorded of him. He dearly loved a social meeting
of his brother artists, and in fact left money in his will to
provide an annual dinner.

He had a natural love of mystification, of putting people off
the track ; he was secretive, and would let no one into his


professional secrets, and he was utterly absorbed in his art.
Probably also he had an infirmity frequent in superior minds,
an impatience with commonplace people ; he was not called
upon to tolerate them, why should he bother himself? On the
face of it the idea of Turner's life having been a sad one is an
absurdity ; every man takes his pleasure where he finds it ; what
but joy, intense love and delight could have been in the man's
soul who through long years wandered over Europe in all
weathers, conscious of the supreme gift of artistic genius, pour-
ing himself out in his matchless drawings in never-ending
fulness and versatility. He was singular and not like other
men, in more ways than one ; and if he never found a sym-
pathetic mind, it was probably because, either from shyness,
from indolence, or indifference, he did not take the trouble to
look for one. But no doubt if any of us were allowed to take
Turner's imagination on trial for a week we should ask for no
better companionship for the remainder of our lives.

When visitors called upon Turner in Queen Anne Street,
they were shown into a dingy room on the ground floor and
asked to wait. After a time there was a shuffling sound of
slippered feet on the staircase, and the great painter entered,
presenting, so it is said, a somewhat fuliginous appearance, like
Vulcan issuing from his forge. Into the sanctum of the studio
none was allowed to penetrate except Mrs Danby, his house-
keeper, and she 4 related that when she went in of an evening
and saw what he had done in the day she used to say to herself,
" He must be a God."

In drawing up his will and its four codicils, Turner seems to
have been actuated by a mixture of selfish and unselfish motives.
He desired to perpetuate his name and fame by the bequest of
his pictures to the National Gallery, the erection of a monument
to himself, the founding of the Turner Medal, and the scheme
for bettering the condition of the unfortunate in his own pro-
fession by the foundation of a sort of superior almshouse to be


called " Turner's Gift." Three of these objects were certainly
for the benefit of other people, and one of the three was a
benevolent project of the highest order. Saving and almost
miserly as Turner was, many stones are related of his genero-
sity, and both in these instances and by the contents of his will,
he showed that he did not save for the sake of hoarding.

The original will is dated the loth of June 1831, and after
sundry small bequests to Turner's uncles and nephews, and
annuities to his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, and some of her
relatives, it provides that the whole of the remainder of the
funded property be applied and disposed of for the purpose of
founding a charitable institution "for the maintenance and
support of poor and decayed male artists, being born in England,
and of English parents only and lawful issue." A " proper and
suitable building or residence" is to be provided for this
purpose, "in such a situation as may be deemed eligible and
advantageous." The institution is to be called " Turner's Gift,"
and the management of it is to be in the hands of four trustees,
of whom two are to be members of the Royal Academy. The
will also contains the gift to the National Gallery of the two
pictures, " Dido building Carthage " and " The Sun Rising in
Mist," on condition of their being hung between the two works
by Claude, " The Seaport " (embarkation of the Queen of Sheba),
and " The Mill " (marriage of Isaac and Rebecca), this bequest
to be void unless accepted within twelve months. On the 2Oth
of August 1832, a codicil was added to the effect that if, after five
years from his death, it was found impossible, owing to there
being any legal objection, to carry out his wish for the establish-
ment of a charitable institution for poor artists, then so much
as was necessary of the property was to be used for the purpose
of forming, at his house in Queen Anne Street, a gallery in
which to keep all his pictures, to be known as " Turner's Gallery,"
and of which Hannah Danby was to be custodian, with 150 a
year as salary, and her two nieces assistants, with ;ioo a year
each. After these bequests had been provided for, the residue


was to go to the Royal Academy on condition of their giving
every year on his birthday, the 23rd of October, a dinner to all
the members of the Academy at a cost not to exceed 50. The
Academy is also to give 60 a year to a Professor of Landscape
to be elected from the Royal Academicians, and a gold medal
worth 20 for the best landscape every second or third year.
If the Academy does not accept the bequest, then the residue
is to go to Georgiana Danby and her heirs, " after causing a
monument to be placed near my remains as can be placed" A
second codicil was executed on the 29th of August 1846, but as
it was subsequently revoked, its contents need not be stated.
The date of the next codicil is 2nd August 1848, and it is
requested that it may be taken as part of the will and of the
first codicil and as revoking the second, and in it his bequests to
his relatives and the Danbys are cancelled, and all his pictures
given to the National Gallery, " provided that a room or rooms
are added to the present National Gallery to be, when erected,
called 'Turner's Gallery,'" and till this is done they are to
remain in Queen Anne Street, as arranged for in the original
will, and if not done within five years, then the gift is to be
void. Again a fourth and last codicil, dated 1st February 1849,
extends the time for the construction of the room or rooms at
the National Gallery to ten years, but if the conditions are not
carried out by that time, then the gift is to be " null and void
and of none effect," and the pictures are to be exhibited
gratuitously to the public at the house in Queen Anne Street till
within two years of the expiration of the existing lease, when
they are to be sold. A sum of 1000 is to be expended in
erecting a monument to him in St Paul's Cathedral, " where I
desire to be buried among my brothers in art," and annuities of
150 each are left to Hannah Danby and Sophia Caroline
Booth, his housekeepers respectively at Queen Anne Street and
Chelsea. If the pictures are sold, the Pension Fund of the
Royal Academy is to receive 1000 of the produce, provided
they give the medal already referred to, and there are legacies


out of it of 500 each to the Artists' General Benevolent Fund,
the Foundling Hospital, and the London Orphan Fund. The
residue is to be " for the benefit of the intended hospital in my
will mentioned." There are also legacies ofiooeach to Mrs
Wheeler and her two sisters, Emma and Laura.

Turner died on the ipth of December 1851, and on the 6th
of September 1852, the will and four codicils were proved, the
effects being sworn under 140,000. It was not likely that such
confused documents, full of interpolations and contradictory
instructions, would be allowed to take legal effect without opposi-
tion, and accordingly, we find the next-of-kin first trying to prove
that the testator was of unsound mind and incapable of making
a will, and then contending, in opposition to the trustees and
executors, who had petitioned the Court of Chancery to give its
construction of the will and administer the estate, that no con-
struction at all could be placed on the will, and that it was
therefore void ; and that even if it could be carried out, it was still
void, as the bequests came within the statute of mortmain. For
four years the suit (Trimmer v. Danby) dragged its slow length
along ; but at last, with the assent of all the interested parties,
a compromise was effected, and on the igth of March 1856,
Vice-Chancellor Kindersley delivered a judgment in accordance
with which all the pictures, drawings, and sketches, whether
finished or unfinished, were to go to the National Gallery, 1000
was to be expended on erecting a monument in St Paul's
Cathedral, 20,000 was to be paid to the Royal Academy, the

Online LibraryJ. E. (John Evan) HodgsonThe Royal academy and its members 1768-1830 → online text (page 19 of 35)