I’m currently on a lecture tour for the Royal Oak Foundation (Americans in Alliance with the National Trust), and a few days ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the great Turner oils of the 1834 fire – which now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. During the writing of The Day Parliament Burned Down I stuck postcards of Turner’s paintings around my desk to inspire me, including that one, so the chance to see it in person was unmissable. Here are my impressions.
It was a chilly March morning when I climbed the steps to the museum, better known as the backdrop to Rocky’s training sessions. One of the lecture sponsors had generously offered me complimentary entry and I knew from my museum floorplan that the room I needed was 292. It was a long walk to the room on the top floor and as I got closer to it, I started to feel rather nervous. Suppose the painting was a disappointment? What would I do then? Was the small, dog-eared Medici postcard that had kept me company through several years of writing going to turn out to be nothing like the real thing? It felt a bit like an internet date (not that I’ve ever done that, ahem). Humiliation and betrayal were possibly just a few rooms away.
I needn’t have worried. The painting wasn’t as I expected, but it was still magnificent. It is hung cleverly, at the end of an enfilade of British painting, including some Constables (and of course, Constable was sketching the fire from his carriage jammed on Westminster Bridge while his great rival moved from Old Palace Yard to a boat on the Thames to do his work during the evening ).
Getting up close to it, and the museum having a policy of allowing photographs without flash, meant that I was able to soak up a lot of the detail which I’d never seen before in my postcard. To begin with, the painting is much more ‘pastel-y’ than it appears in reproductions, even my photo below. It’s hard to believe it’s actually oil in some places. The fire is a hazy apricot on the left, and the night sky on the right a washed-out blue. Westminster bridge seems almost painted in watercolour. It is an astonishing piece of technique from Turner.
The painting was completed at a ‘varnishing day’ in March 1835, and the artist E.V. Rippingille recalled a couple of decades later how its twin (now at Cleveland Museum of Art) was ‘finished’ in a bravura piece of showmanship:
‘Turner who, as he boasted, could outwork and kill any painter alive, was there, and at work at his picture, before I came, having set-to at the earliest hour allowed. Indeed, it was quite necessary to make the best of his time, as the picture when sent in was a mere dab of several colours, and “without form and void,” like chaos before the creation…Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest and attraction…A small box of colours, a few very small brushes, and a vial or two, were at his feet, very inconveniently place; but his short figure, stooping, enabled him to reach what he wanted very readily. Leaning forward and sideways over to the right, the left-hand metal button of his blue coat rose six inches higher than the right, and his head buried in his shoulders and held down, presented an aspect curious to all beholders…In one part of the mysterious proceedings Turner, who worked almost entirely with a palette knife, was observed to be rolling and spreading a lump of half-transparent stuff over his picture, the size of a finger in length and thickness…Presently the work was finished: Turner gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, and at the same distance from it, went sidling off without speaking a word to anybody, and when he came to the staircase, in the centre of the room, hurried down as fast as he could. All looked with a half-wondering smile, and Maclise [Daniel Maclise, painter and friend of Dickens], who stood near, remarked, “There, that’s masterly, he does not stop to look at his work; he knows it is done and he is off.”‘
In my lectures on the fire (I’d done one at the Union League Club of Philadelphia the night before) I use various paintings of the fire to tell the story of its progress. Close up to this Turner I was able to spot the following:
…the detail of the burning buildings to the south (left) of the House of Commons, and the thickly-applied paint for the fire shooting up from its roof to the sky…
…the great grey plume of smoke from the building which continued for days after…
…the faces of people in the crowd on the Lambeth bank, and the water racing through the piers of the bridge…
…the torches in the crowd on the same bank…
…the fearsome sparks flying overhead which terrified onlookers.
Altogether it was a wonderful experience, but also a poignant one. The painting wasn’t attracting much attention from visitors, and there was no merchandise in the museum stores which I could find. I was hoping to come away with a fun bag of loot relating to the picture – fridge magnet, mug, t-shirt, keyring, anything – but there wasn’t even a postcard to take away. There were some general books on Turner but nothing specific on this picture. It is not, of course, neglected but it isn’t fully appreciated in the US, either. It just doesn’t have the same resonance there as in the UK. If it had formed part of the Turner bequest and now hung in Tate Britain it would be one of the highlights of the collection. It left the country in the 19th century so nothing can be done about it, yet I can’t help feeling that it is one of the great artistic losses of the UK. However, I recognise that I am obsessed with the subject, and maybe others won’t feel the same. Or do you?
If you enjoyed this, you might also like these other blogposts about JMW Turner: