A new exhibition at the Tate Modern shows a visionary painter who anticipated much modern art, argues Colin Wilson
A few years ago, in a particularly sentimental episode of Doctor Who, the doctor met Van Gogh. There is no evidence of Turner encountering a time lord, but that he travelled to the mid-twentieth century and back would, at least, be one explanation of how he produced the extraordinary pictures on show in Tate Britain’s new exhibition Late Turner: Painting Set Free.
Turner produced these artworks after he had reached the age of sixty: it was 1835, and he had made a living selling his art for over forty years. He had heart disease, probably the result of lead poisoning from all the paint, for which he drank lots of sherry. He was living with his mistress, Sophia Booth, so he kept a low profile socially.
He continued painting almost until his death aged seventy-six. And here’s the Doctor Who thing – these aren’t paintings that look they were made in the mid-19th century. One, in the first room, is full of photographic detail. Opposite it is Turner’s almost completely abstract Sun Setting Over a Lake, where a little blob of sun appears amidst hazy masses of orange, yellow and white. In Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844 the railway is a dark brown diagonal that cuts though more misty shapes in sky blue and pale gold. Rough Sea, a seething mass of grey and black with white flecks, isn’t a painting in the nineteenth-century sense at all. Turner is doing everything that that you might have thought happened later on in nineteenth century art – after the popularisation of photography, after the importing of art from Japan, after the Impressionists – in the 1830s. Nor are these dozens of paintings experiments, but finished works by a master, things of extraordinary beauty. They were not popular at the time: there were rumours that Turner had gone mad.
The exhibition covers an extraordinary range of subject matter. There’s the grandeur of romantic nature in mountains, seascapes, sunsets over water. There are mythical and biblical scenes. Paintings of ancient Rome must have struck a chord with bourgeois Victorians, leaders of a huge empire. Turner repeatedly painted Venice, a favourite middle class holiday destination, and again the hub of a huge trading empire.
Finally, there are pictures which must have a special resonance for revolutionaries – those of great state buildings on fire. Several little water colours depict a fire at the Tower of London. They aren’t solemn accounts of an awful tragedy – the abstract masses of red, yellow and blue are beautiful and almost celebratory. There’s the same excitement to Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834. Turner paints the huge crowds which gathered on the opposite bank of the Thames to watch the medieval parliament burn down that night. The little lanterns on Westminster Bridge are nothing to the glorious size and power of the fire – the far end of the bridge almost seems to be melting. All in all, from the British state in flames to paintings a hundred years ahead of their time, what’s not to like?