Tate: Whitby, c. 1824, J .M. W. Turner (1775–1851) © Tate, London 2018
Tate: Whitby, c. 1824, J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) © Tate, London 2018

MYSTIC, Conn. —  In partnership with Tate, London, from Oct. 5 to Feb. 23, 2020, Mystic Seaport Museum presents J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate, a major exhibition drawn from the renowned Turner Bequest of 1856, the vast legacy of art donated to Great Britain by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which resides today in Tate Britain. Mystic Seaport Museum is the only North American venue for the exhibition.

The exhibition spans the entirety of Turner’s long career and, by focusing on the artist’s watercolors, provides insight into the private visionary behind the public figure. The viewer will see Turner’s watercolor practice evolve from aide to memory to a way of thinking with his brush — ‘for his own pleasure,’ to borrow a phrase from a contemporary admirer, the critic John Ruskin.

 “Joseph Mallord William Turner is one of the great artists of the Western Canon,” noted Stephen C. White, president, Mystic Seaport Museum, the preeminent maritime museum in the United States. “In building our new exhibition center, the Thompson Building, which opened in 2016, we prepared for loans of this caliber. Now we are thrilled to be able to bring Turner’s watercolors here for visitors throughout the region and country.”

Tate rations display of Turner’s watercolors, given the fugitive quality of the medium. But Tate balances conservation considerations with the mission to serve new audiences. “We are exceptionally pleased to send this intimate and powerful selection of works to Mystic Seaport Museum – the result of an ambitious and rewarding collaboration between the two organizations,” said Dr. Maria Balshaw, CBE Director, Tate.

Watercolors from Tate brings together 91 watercolors, four oil paintings and one of the artist’s last sketchbooks.  “Not one of these watercolors or the sketchbook would have survived had Turner had anything to do with it,” noted exhibition curator David Blayley Brown, the Tate’s Manton Senior Curator of British Art 1790-1850. Before his death, Turner sought to cement his place in history by bequeathing the contents of his studio to the British nation. He envisioned that the finished oil pictures would hang in rotation in a Turner Gallery inside the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. But that dream never came to pass and, in 1856, the Chancery Court overruled the artist’s wishes, saving the entire contents of the studio, including more than 30,000 watercolors and sketches stashed haphazardly in cupboards, crammed in drawers and rolled between canvases. 

Nicholas Bell, senior vice president for Curatorial Affairs, Mystic Seaport Museum, said, “Watercolor has always been central to Turner’s art and its inspiration to others. Perhaps surprisingly for a North American audience, which has always had greater access to his oils, the watercolors have long competed in Britain with their weightier oil counterparts for museum-goers’ affections. What’s so marvelous about this gathering of loan works is that its very size makes it possible to follow Turner’s career trajectory in all its complexity.”

“Here we see not the public Turner, whose large oil paintings hung prominently in the Royal Academy, but the private artist who continually tested compositions, color, and tactile effect,” Brown said.

Watercolors from Tate brings together luminous landscapes and atmospheric seascapes, architectural and topographical sketches, travel drawings and even a number of intimate interior views. Some watercolors were completed in the studio; others, sketched en plein air. A number appear to have been dashed off on tiny slips of paper; others are finished works, conceived for display, incorporating ink, pencil and gouache. The earliest work on view  is a romantic view of a gorge painted in 1791 when Turner was 17 years old; the latest, painted 55 years later and exhibited at the Royal Academy five years before the artist’s death, is Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavoring to Extricate Themselves (1846). 

Turner’s career coincided the emergence of the picturesque and the establishment of watercolor as an independent art form. Watercolors from Tate impresses upon the viewer his unceasing curiosity and the prodigious effort he expended to ascend to greatness. Turner rarely left home without a rolled-up loose-bound sketchbook, pencils and a small traveling case of watercolors. By way of his sharp visual memory and sketches, he created a repertoire of lakes, mountains, rolling hills and bridges as subject matter for salon paintings and print series. Early tours to Wales and Scotland and later wanderings in continental Europe, the Swiss Alps, and England, and the Grand Tour, resulted in such brilliant drawings as the featured Shields Lighthouse (circa 1823-6), Arundel Castle on the River Arun (circa 1824) and Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset (1840)

As art was becoming increasing democratized, even an artist as successful as Turner would have been mindful of the marketplace. Although often perceived in this country as solely a painter of the timeless sublime, Turner was in continuous dialogue with his public. In 1846, for instance, Londoners encountering the Whalers at the Royal Academy likely would have recalled a recent incident of a whale being caught in the Thames. Fashionable types would have registered the name William Beckford when seeing View of Fonthill Abbey (1799-1800); considered Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1830) almost an on-scene dispatch and viewed Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore, Early Morning (1819) as a stunning depiction of the continental wonders finally once more accessible to British travelers following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. 

Many of the bold, vivid watercolors featured in Watercolors from Tate were created by Turner for commercial subscription–only print series — etched, engraved and mezzo-tinted on copper — or for printed poems by contemporaries like Lord Byron and Samuel Rogers. A slip found in one of Rogers’ own chapbooks noted that Turner’s original designs were returned after engraving because, “The truth is, they were of little value as drawings.” “This is not a view borne out by posterity,” noted Brown.

The exhibition concludes on a high note with a selection of 17 watercolors, oils, and a sketchbook of scenes of the sea–shipwrecks, a beached boat, coastal views and purely atmospheric images. Highlights here include a graphite and watercolor drawing evoking with stark economy a vessel or whale stranded on a mountainous coast and Stormy Sea with Dolphins (circa 1835-4), a major painting that last traveled to the U.S. in 1966 as part of a notable monographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.