The Keystone Journal

All things will hold together

Turner’s Fight with Nature

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The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery, London)

He died years ago, but Joseph Mallard William Turner is still a celebrity in Britain today. He has long been considered Britain’s greatest artist, with most of his attention coming from the scholarly world. Many authors have sought to explain aspects of his work in biographies and academic books. His latest recognition of fame reached a new medium— film. J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire has a brief, but memorable cameo in the new James Bond film, Skyfall.

Bond sits in London’s National Gallery gazing at the famous Turner piece, when a young man (007’s new Q) turns up and sits next to him.

“It always makes me feel a little melancholy,” says the young man. “Grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?”

“A bloody big ship,” says a disturbed Bond.

The dialogue is a brilliant example of the sheer depth in Turner’s paintings. They are highly evocative, deeply stirring, and utterly beautiful to look upon— so beautiful, that it even makes James Bond “feel” something. As a painter, Turner wanted his viewers to feel something.  As a Romantic artist, he wanted us to see the world through his eyes[1]. While looking at another of his works, Rain, Steam, Speed, one can begin to understand the vision Turner had in the midst of a vastly changing 19th Century. As an artist living right in the smog of the Industrial Revolution, Turner’s Rain, Steam, Speed depicts a nation that is coming of age, losing itself to progression, and feeling a “little melancholy” about a life that is wrought with inevitable change[2].

Rain, Steam, and Speed— The Great Western Railway (National Gallery, London)

Rain, Steam, and Speed— The Great Western Railway (National Gallery, London)

Progress

Like many of Turner’s works, Rain, Steam, Speed evokes something within its viewer. Different viewers create their own ideas as to what it is they see in front of them. Some may see a “bloody big” train, while others see an age of loss and forfeiture from world they knew and loved. Still many believe this piece is not a commentary about supersession, but a progressive vision of hopeful new world. An article, Rain Steam and What? written in the Oxford Art Journal by Ian Carter suggests something else. Carter argues that Turner’s Rain, Steam, Speed is not simply an allegory about loss nor progress, but both combined.[3] Carter writers, “Rain, Steam and Speed is about loss, but also about progress. To be more precise, it is about the casualties of progress and the impossibility of not changing. The radical instability of Turner’s image is its most enduring feature.”[4]

The Industrial Revolution proved that the world would never be the same again. Man and machine were forever married. One can assume there was a divide in the public perception of this matrimony. Many must have adopted the new industry as improvements, while a great deal of others must have despised the change as disruption to tranquility. What did Turner believe? Carter seems to think Turner believed the two, industry and nature, could be combined in a non-confronting and agreeable manner[5]. Carter argues that Rain, Steam, Speed depicts a scene where industry is in perfect harmony with nature.

Aging

Steven P. Wainwright of the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing at the University of London, argues that Rain, Steam, Speed has a certain scientific appeal. In his journal titled Embodied vulnerability in the art of J. M. W. Turner: representations of ageing in Romantic painting, Wainwright shares his belief that just as the painting suggests a changing time for a nation, it also embodies an allegorical meaning for ageing as humans.[6] Perhaps this is what James Bond felt when looking at Turner’s Temeraire, that he was getting too old for his curious occupation. Wainwright states, “Turner’s paintings should not just be looked at: rather, they are pictures that the observer can live. Turner’s pictures should be witnessed, not just viewed.”[7] He believes that when Turner stuck his head outside the moving train he saw an allegory for the forces of nature.

“This painting is a story of the transformation of ageing. We all change as we age, but the world around us seems to change at a faster rate,” Wainwright says.

Nothing lasts forever. Nothing progressive will make enough progress before time runs out. American author F. Scott Fitzgerald would have shared similar beliefs to the notions Wainwright talks about in his journal. In his book This Side of Paradise he says, “I’m not sentimental–I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last–the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”[8]

It is awfully sad to talk about such things as irreversible change, aging, and death. For centuries, men have attempted to build up their lives to the utmost potential. However noble they sought after their goals, each and every campaign ended. Every empire, and every man has fallen. Wainwright believes this is what Turner had in mind when painting. He believes Turner’s paintings have an allegorical imagery of “relentless and ineluctable natural forces that overwhelm man’s attempts to build civilisations that challenge those forces.”[9] The Romantic artist wants to create a moment of awe inside the viewer of his or her work.

Turner’s Masterpiece

Neither perspective is best. Turner’s Rain, Steam, Speed has been puzzling viewers for over 150 years, which is a good indication on the ability of a painter. A masterpiece does not have a singular notion it supports— what would be so “masterful” about that?

In a 1771 address to Royal Academy students, president Joshua Reynolds shared his Seven Discourses on Art. In his address Reynolds explained what it meant to create a proper work of art.

The great end of the art is to strike the imagination. The painter is, therefore, to make no ostentation of the means by which this is done; the spectator is only to feel the result in his bosom. An inferior artist is unwilling that any part of his industry should be lost upon the spectator. He takes as much pains to discover, as the greater artist does to conceal, the marks of his subordinate assiduity. In works of the lower kind everything appears studied and encumbered; it is all boastful art and open affection. The ignorant often part from such pictures with wonder in their mouths, and indifference in their minds.[10]

Since Turner was a product of the Royal Academy, he must have taken head to this advice. We can assume, then, that the meaning of his work should never be unveiled.


[1] Steven P. Wainwright, “Embodied vulnerability in the art of J. M. W. Turner: representations of ageing in Romantic painting” Aging and Society (2004),, “Romantic Painting” p., 604

[2] Ian Carter, “Rain Steam & What?” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1997), pp. 3-4

[3] Carter, p. 4

[4]Carter, p. 4

[5]Carter, p. 4

[6] Wainwright, p. 609

[7] Wainwright, p. 609

[8] F. Scott Fitzgerald. This Side of Paradise. (New York: Scribner, c1920)
[9] Wainwright, p. 611

[10]Joshua Reynolds, Sir. Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy. (T. Ladell, 1778)

2 comments on “Turner’s Fight with Nature

  1. Pingback: JMW Turner’s Energy Transition – Artists & Climate Change

  2. Pingback: JMW Turner’s Energy Transition – The CSPA

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