Gombrich Explains Turner

The historian admired the painter’s mastery of nature and the stagecraft with which he managed his visual effects
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by JMW Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by JMW Turner

The opening weekend of the Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Late Turner – Painting Set Free was met with happy crowds and five-star reviews. Perhaps you have visited it, have enjoyed the coverage, or are keen to learn more about the show before it travels on to J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles next February, or the de Young Museum in San Francisco, next June.

With this in mind, let’s turn to EH Gombrich, the great historian, who covers this British painter in the most popular art book ever written, The Story of Art. Our extract comes from chapter 24, The Break in Tradition: England, America and France, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Here Gombrich examines how, in this Age of Revolution, old assurances about truth and beauty were called into question, giving rise to the stylistic disruptions that would eventually lead to Modernism.


The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842) by JMW Turner
The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842) by JMW Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, although a very English painter, was also at the heart of these ructions. “Turner,” Gombrich writes, “had visions of a fantastic world bathed in light and resplendent with beauty, but it was a world not of calm, but of movement, not of simple harmonies but of dazzling pageantries. He crowded into his pictures every effect which could make them more striking and more dramatic, and, had he been a lesser artist than he was, this desire to impress the public might have had a disastrous result. Yet he was such a superb stage manager, he worked with such gusto and skill, that he carried it off and the best of his pictures, in fact, give us a conception of the grandeur of nature at its most romantic and sublime.”

To illustrate this point, Gombrich compares Turner’s Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) (lead picture, top) with an earlier and more sedate European seascape, Simon de Vlieger’s Dutch Man of War and Various Vessels in a Breeze (c. 1638 - 45)

The latter is a clear depiction of sailing ships. Given the clarity of the hulls and rigging, “we might be able to reconstruct these vessels,” Gombrich notes. By comparison, “Nobody could reconstruct a nineteenth-century steamer from Turner’s seascape. All he gives us is the impression of the dark hull, of the flag flying bravely from the mast – of a battle with the raging seas and threatening squalls. We almost feel the rush of the wind and the impact of the waves. We have no time to look for details. They are swallowed up by the dazzling light and dark shadows of the storm cloud. I do not know whether a blizzard at sea really looks like this. But I do know that it is a storm of this awe-inspiring and overwhelming kind that we imagine when reading a romantic poem or listening to romantic music. In Turner, nature always reflects and expresses man’s emotions. We feel small and overwhelmed in the face of the powers we cannot control, and are compelled to admire the artist who had nature’s forces at his command.”


Peace - Burial at Sea (1842) by JMW Turner
Peace - Burial at Sea (1842) by JMW Turner

To admire that skill at closer hand, and to see the picture that Gombrich writes about, visit the Tate’s exhibition, which runs until 25 January 2015. For greater insight into both this period of art as well as pretty much all others, buy a copy of The Story of Art here. Also, for a richer look at Turner’s work, consider our overview of the artist.

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