(Romantic) Landscapes at Turner Contemporary

After a festive period dominated by deluge, on Thursday we finally had a bright, clear day, so I took a trip down to the sea in Margate, which is home to what JMW Turner called the loveliest skies in Europe and the gallery in the name of the same, Turner Contemporary.

The current exhibitions (just – finishing today) are “Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature” and “Dorothy Cross: Connemara.” I obliquely promised a post on this exhibition when I last visited, but didn’t quite get around to writing it, partly because I realised I hadn’t taken in that much of the display owing to spending most of my time catching up with former colleagues (before my PhD I worked as a Gallery Assistant at TC).

“Sketching from Nature” explores the phenomenon of landscape painting in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; as the title suggests,it pays particular attention to the practice of painting in the landscape and Turner and Constable feature prominently, although there are also works by many contemporaries.

This is of course Blake’s period, but not very Blakean subject matter. Indeed, Blake is often read as hostile to nature and as rejecting landscape painting as an empty, fashionable fad. This is an oversimplification (see, for instance, details of a display at Tate Britain last year) and in fact something I’m thinking about in one of the chapters I am currently working on in my thesis (more on that another time perhaps).

There were at least two people connected with Blake represented in the exhibition. There were several works by John Linnell, a friend and patron to Blake in the later years of his life, and others by Cornelius Varley, brother of John Varley with whom Blake created his ‘Visionary Heads.’

Linnell was particularly known for his landscape paintings which are quite conventional in style, and looking at them with his interest in Blake’s work in mind is quite startling (see this slideshow of Linnell’s works in the Tate collection). Among other important gestures, Linnell introduced Blake to Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert – the younger disciples of Blake known as ‘the Ancients’ who also had a particular interest in landscapes (especially Palmer and Calvert) but were not represented in the exhibition.

As for Cornelius, I hadn’t heard of him before visiting the exhibition, but the surname jumped out at me as a likely relation to John. A quick bit of internet research revealed that Cornelius’ main occupation was making scientific instruments (see an article from Cambridge’s Whipple Museum). Most significantly, he invented the graphic telescope, which projected a magnified image of a subject onto paper, allowing the production of an accurate drawing. Cornelius used the telescope to sketch portraits and landscapes, as well as scientific drawings; Blake would have abhorred this method, which diminishes the role of even sensory perception, and still more the visionary perception Blake thought artists should aspire to.

The works by Cornelius in the exhibition pre-dated the graphic telescope, but I don’t think Blake would have thought much of them anyway (see his Tate slideshow). They were not actually the precise style one might expect with Cornelius’ scientific interests in mind – indeed, the indistinctness of some of the forms is a reason Blake would probably not have liked them (see his comments on linearity in the Descriptive Catalogue – available in the Blake Archive).

Blakean objections aside, it’s a shame that Cornelius’ invention was not mentioned (unless I missed it) in any of the exhibition literature (although it may be mentioned in the catalogue). Something else I found odd was that the term “Romanticism” seemed to be obstinately avoided, even in the room which explored idealised and imaginary representations of landscapes (again, I can’t speak for the catalogue).

I left the gallery just before sunset, and was hoping I might get one of the spectacular sort for which Margate is famous, but it was rather grey (see photo below – in spite of the poor quality of the mobile phone shot, it actually manages to make the sky look more interesting than it was through my own eyes). Whether or not the paintings inside should be called Romantic, the scene outside wasn’t on Thursday evening.

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