J. M. W. Turner has been a popular man of late. Tate Liverpool and the National Gallery
preceded the Royal Academy in grouping Turner with other heavyweights (including Monet
and Twombly, respectively) before this – the Royal Academy’s ‘Constable, Gainsborough,
Turner and the Making of Landscape’. This exhibition seems to give primacy to the
development of landscape art in Britain, rather than the three Academicians themselves. The
exhibition offers insight into the landscape movement and the Academy’s collection, from
which it is exclusively curated.
In heavily gilded rooms, cherubs hover, very nude, over doorways. This first room of the
exhibition features contemporary artists. John Maine RA (b.1942) typically sculpts stone, in
this case Indian granite which ‘proffers a microcosm of the land itself’. The displayed works
of Norman Ackroyd RA (b.1938). St Kilda – Stac Lee and Stac an Armin (1990), are a stark
and humbling portrayal of Scottish rocks, invoking awe and natural sublimity.
Engravings in room two are so detailed we can see microscopic individual leaves and
the horns of tiny cattle. Mid-18th-century artists liked their frothy treetops, little human
scenes near rivers, and Italianate columns; there’s an air of realism, but these are idealised
landscapes. Painters of the originals wouldn’t have seen many of the Old Master’s works as
there were no public galleries in Britain until the 1815 opening of the Dulwich Picture
Gallery; rare glimpses in private homes were all artists could hope for. The achievements of
engravers to share lauded works and inspire artists like Turner were invaluable, filling
lacunae in public cultural consumption.
But this is only the preamble. These rooms show the context of Constable,
Gainsborough, and Turner, and the relevance of print-making. Prints could make or break the
reputation of 18th-century artists. Although some were done by the original artist, many
would not be. Some liberty was subsequently taken, mediated by the power of imagination.
Imagination is the “mightiest lever known to the moral world”, muses Wordsworth in a
sonnet. Along with other Romantic poets, he questioned the power of imagination: what is
fulfilling – the place itself, or our imagining of it?
Arriving in room four, we finally meet the original works of the eponymous artists.
An RA poster informs us that contemporary aesthetic theory including the sublime,
Picturesque, and the Romantic, allow the imbuing of these artists’ works with emotional,
intellectual, historic, and poetic resonance. There is a letter of Constable’s, in which he
writes: “I wait for those hours of quiet and leisure which never come.” He feared his
paintings, turned with chiaroscuro into etchings, became “ferocious”. Constable’s marble
bust presides over the letters. Light and meteorology in Constable’s paintings are paramount
and result in astounding clouds. Particularly pleasing are the placemat-sized studies of
effluvium, trees, views from Hampstead Heath.
Few Turner paintings grace the exhibition, although the broody and affecting
Dolbadern Castle is included. Other Turner paintings can still be seen at the National,
including The Fighting Temeraire, Calais Pier, and Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s
Odyssey. Height and light in Turner’s work resonante; the height of cliffs, abbey facades,
trees. Sun-rays shine through clouds, spilling on water, touching clouds, pebbles and faces.
There are grand oils, but also delicate etchings and watercolours with fleeting light and
moving shadow. Rooker and Turner’s works are displayed adjacently, to highlight the
importance of watercolour in changing the landscape genre in Britain. Turner, beginning in a
tradition of the Picturesque, left its strictures to explore the potential expression made
possible by watercolour. The detail of the Picturesque and Romantic ‘sketches from nature’
are tempered by monochromatic etchings, Turner’s innovative compositions, and
Gainsborough’s later landscapes of mountainous regions illuminated by lit darts from
This exhibition was created to elucidate the history and context of these painters’
artworks. Achieved in the works’ careful placement, a dialogue is established between
these visual arts, their context, and the viewer. When viewing exhibits by these and other
artists, the viewer may consider their production, and the development of landscape painting.
Hopefully, you may also feel moved by the grandeur of nature depicted, and compelled to
seek it yourself.